Piranha Swim Team voted out of swim league

Published 2:30 pm Thursday, August 7, 2014

By Stephen Hemelt

LAPLACE — The Piranha Swim Team was voted out of the River Parish Swim League this week, and many on the local squad want to know why.

The league operated this summer with seven teams, all hailing from either St. John the Baptist, St. James or St. Charles parishes.

Craig Wagoner, Piranha Swim Team treasurer, attended Tuesday’s meeting of league representatives, and said team reps. from Piranha Swim Team, LARAYO and Riverlands voted to keep the Piranhas in the league but were overruled by a majority vote from team reps. for Hill Heights, Sun Villa, Ellington and LaVacherie.

“If there was a general dissatisfaction with (team representative) Natalie (Tatje) and with our coaches, why penalize the whole team?” Wagoner said. “Why take this action and affect 130 kids. That’s the part I can’t understand. It doesn’t make sense to me. Is there an ulterior motive here?”

Messages left for River Parish Swim League President Kathy Braud Wednesday and Thursday seeking comment were not returned.

However, at 8 p.m. Thursday an email from Kathy Braud titled “Swim league press statement release” stated: “The River Parish Swim League voted to remove Belle Terre/PST from our league due to unsportsmanlike behavior and constantly circumventing the league rules by the league rep and coaches, which is not the type of behavior we want taught to any swimmers in this league. It truly saddens the entire board that these steps had to be taken.”

The email was signed “River Parish Swim League Board.”

The dismissal this week seemed to catch officials with Piranha Swim Team off guard, which prompted a press release from head coach Haley Montz and assistant coach Blaine Tatje early Wednesday that accused league officials of discrimination in seeking the Piranhas’ dismissal.

“As a league board that should be promoting sportsmanship and teaching athletes the importance of respecting the sport and each other, we have been faced with unprecedented resistance in the form of what can only be called blatant racial discrimination,” the release said.

In an interview with L’OBSERVATEUR Wednesday, Blaine Tatje said team leaders see the team’s removal as a reaction the Piranhas’ use of black swimmers.

“(Tuesday) night at the meeting, they said that we do not represent good sportsmanship for the league, and that they felt we should no longer be welcome,” Blaine Tatje said. “It was an excuse to beat around the bush.”

League officials have not responded publically to the accusations, but league sources strongly deny the charges leveled by the Piranha Swim Team leadership.

Another bone of contention between Piranha leadership and league sources is the participation of black athletes.

“Our team is comprised of 30 percent African-American swimmers,” Piranha coaches said their release. “We are the only team that has such diversity in our membership, as we do not discriminate in our membership.”

League sources took offense to the claim, adding no team discriminates and listed LARAYO, Sun Villa and Riverlands as a few of the league teams that have black swimmers.

Attempts to report on-the-record confirmation from league officials has been unsuccessful.

The man listed in league documents earlier this year as River Parish Swim League Secretary said he was no longer in that position and had no comment. The woman listed as League Treasurer said she was not at Tuesday’s meeting and could offer no comment.

Messages left at the listed numbers for team representatives were not returned.

News of the dismissal has caused heated reactions in the community, as supporters for all teams have largely defended the credibility of their squads.

Supporters of each side have also posted on L’OBSERVATEUR’s website and Facebook page.

One poster said, “As a lifelong participant in this swim league, racism has never been an issue. If this were an issue, I would not have my children participating in this league. My children now swim in the league and in the 10 years they have been swimming, Belle Terre has had issues with violations of the rules. From my perspective, the issue is not with the swimmers or the color of their skin, it is with the swim rep and the coaches and the example they are setting for the children with their unethical practices.”

Another poster said “it was racism when African-American kids that lived in LARAYO Park in the 80’s and 90’s were not allowed to swim there and not much has changed today. It’s really baffling considering how much things ‘supposedly’ changed, but really remained the same.”

Piranha Swim Team officials met with the parents of about 60 swimmers Wednesday evening, discussing future options for the team, which boasts more than 100 children.

“We had 39 new swimmers this year,” Natalie Tatje said. “That is unprecedented. I would say out of those 39, 35 didn’t know how to swim. Our coaches worked really hard. Our graduated swimmers came back to help out. It was a total effort on everybody’s part to teach these kids how to swim.

“We’re going to find a place to swim. We will swim in another league. They are not going to let us back in.”

Wagoner said he was most disappointed because until the removal, the year had been quite strong for the Piranhas.

“There has been a big change in our club,” he said. “We do have a lot more black swimmers. There is a lot more energy on our club. There is a solid energy on our team. The kids love to swim. The kids love to go to the meets. Practices are fun.

“It had been such a feel good year for the team.”