From left, Jose Nguti, Andre Nzobani, Kevin Joao-Kelivne, Eduardo Tumba and Pedro Ndoko-Mvunda were new members of the South Portland High swim team this winter. All grew up in Angola and had few if any swimming skills entering the season. A sixth new swimmer, Matis Patrick Eyogo Edzang from Gabon, was absent on this day. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

SOUTH PORTLAND — At the first meet of the high school swimming season in early December, South Portland freshman Jose Nguti looked around the pool. He saw perhaps 20 spectators.

“But in my head, I felt like I was in the Olympics,” he said, “and there was like 200 people watching me.”

His race was a 50-meter freestyle.

A thought crossed his mind: What if I do something wrong?

But as soon as he hit the water, Nguti felt a sense of calm sweep over him. He didn’t win, but neither did he sink to the bottom of the deep end. Only a few weeks earlier, that possibility had not seemed entirely implausible.

Nguti was one of six new members of the South Portland High swim team who grew up in Central Africa, in Angola or Gabon. They joined the program in November – when not all of them knew how to swim.


They offered an interesting and ultimately rewarding challenge for head coach Ryan Green and assistant Lesley Hurley, as well as returning veterans on the 39-member roster.

“Every single one of those kids, at some point, has been a part of the new guys’ path,” said Hurley, an aquatic supervisor at South Portland Community Center. “Whether actively working with them in the water or handing them goggles or showing them how to tighten their goggles or telling them, ‘It’s going to be OK. You can do this!'”

Jose Nguti grew up in Angola and joined the South Portland High swim team this winter. “When I first started here, I was scared of the deep end,” he says. “But now I’m not.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Emilie Way, a senior, is a diver who regularly arrived at the pool an hour before her own practice so she could work with the new Mainers.

She had taught preschoolers to swim, but never her peers. When Green and Hurley asked the team in November if anyone would be willing to help teach some newcomers, Way figured it would be fun.

“The first week we just worked on blowing bubbles and holding on to the side of the wall and kicking our feet,” she said. “I was in the water with them every day.”

They stayed in the shallow end until the initial group of seven boys and one girl new to swimming learned how to tread water and turn over on their backs if they got tired.


Progress came quickly.

Nguti and Matis Patrick Eyogo Edzang competed in the first meet on Dec. 9. Three weeks later, a meet against Yarmouth gave the other immigrants their first taste of competition.

Eleven races counted in that meet, a 64-57 South Portland victory. The one exhibition race that didn’t count – 25 meters, one length of the pool, starting at the shallow end – drew the loudest cheers, from teammates and opponents and spectators.

“I was videotaping it and I was teary-eyed,” Hurley said. “I turned around. There were parents behind me and they were teary-eyed. It was really cool.”

South Portland High swimmers Kevin Joao-Kelivne, Pedro Ndoko-Mvunda and Jose Nguti take a break during warmups. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Like Nguti, Kevin Joao-Kelivne, Andre Nzobani, Eduardo Tumba and Pedro Ndoko-Mvunda grew up in Angola – where Portuguese is spoken – and made the long journey to Maine, by foot and by bus, through multiple countries in South and Central America. Edzang grew up in Gabon speaking French.

He came to Maine at 16 two years ago and lives with his aunt. She advised him to take part in afterschool sports as a way to meet people, learn a new skill and practice his English.


Last winter Edzang attended Deering High and competed on the wrestling team.

In his first year in Maine, Edzang said, he relied on a cousin to translate a teacher’s instructions into French. Then he decided to fully embrace his new home by watching movies and videos and speaking English as much as possible. Now, he translates for other new speakers of English.

As for his experience on the swim team, “I was so happy when I’m coming for the first time,” he said. “People was happy (to have) a new teammate. I say this is my second family.”

Some of South Portland’s new swimmers, from left, Eduardo Tumba, Jose Nguti, Kevin Joao-Kelivne, Andre Nzobani and Pedro Ndoko-Mvunda stand with swim team veterans Emilie Day and Nick Reid, who have both been instrumental in training the newcomers. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Early on at practices, Edzang and the Angolans were known as New Mainers or New Swimmers or simply The Guys, but by season’s end, he said, such labels evaporated.

“New guys? No, they don’t care if you’re new,” Edzang said of his aquatic acquaintances. “It’s the family. ‘Hi Kevin’ or ‘Hi Pedro’ or ‘Hi Everybody.’ They don’t say, ‘Hi New Guy, come swimming.’ They say, ‘Hi, how are you? Come swimming with us.'”

Nzobani joined the team after first taking part in what Hurley has dubbed the South Portland Swim Club. It started almost a year ago as a way to help high schoolers new to Maine learn important safety skills.


Given the state’s lengthy ocean coastline and abundant lakes and rivers, knowing how to swim, or at least how to remain calm in water, can be a lifesaver. Maine averaged 1.51 drowning deaths per 100,000 people annually from 2016-20, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, placing the state 15th highest in drownings per capita.

One of the morning lap swimmers raised the idea with Hurley, who contacted Gretchen McCloy, director of community partnerships for South Portland schools. McCloy, who is well aware that nearly 10% of students in the South Portland system are housing-vulnerable or experiencing homelessness, was able to get swimsuits, caps and towels for anyone who needed them through donations from the community.

Hurley took care of goggles and the lap swimmer paid entrance fees for the 15 students who took part in last spring’s pilot program. Another dozen participated this fall and McCloy, who has tapped into scholarship funding through the city’s recreation department, expects as many as 24 more before the end of the school year.

South Portland’s Pedro Ndoko-Mvunda swims laps while warming up before a meet early in February. He and five other new Mainers who grew up in Angola or Gabon joined the high school’s swim team last November, even though not all of them knew how to swim. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“We’re advertising it as a beginner swim class,” McCloy said. “It’s open to anyone who happens to have a (free period). So far, it has been exclusively new Mainers who have been participating in the program.”

Every Tuesday and Friday, two different groups from the high school come to the adjacent Community Center pool for lessons. McCloy’s mother, a retired aquatics teacher, is one of the volunteers helping Hurley and fellow instructor Hildi McKeagney, who provide their services for free.

When Green, the head coach, heard about Swim Club last spring, he wondered if any of the kids who’d signed up might want to join the school team. Hurley was dubious, knowing that all the club instruction was in the shallow end of the pool. Still, she and Green approached Todd Livingston, the athletic director, and a plan gradually took shape.


Because Green doubles as a diving coach, the shallow end of the pool remained open during diving practice. And when both coaches were working with more-seasoned swimmers, Way and another senior, Nick Reid, a year-round club swimmer with Coastal Maine Aquatics, could tutor the still-learning swimmers.

“There is a language barrier, but we’ve learned how to communicate,” Reid said. “They fit in with the rest of the team very well. Transportation gets hard, but we always find a way to include them.”

For some of the new Mainers, home is a motel, or a homeless shelter in Portland. There’s an afternoon school bus at 4:45 that worked well for practice, but nothing after meets or on days when practice followed an early release.

South Portland High’s Pedro Ndoko-Mvunda adjusts his goggles before warming up in the pool. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“There have been unexpected hurdles,” Hurley said. “Ryan and I drive them home quite often because the school bus doesn’t always work out. It does most days, but it doesn’t always work.”

Maine’s high school swimming and diving season ended recently and none of the six rookies from South Portland qualified for the Class A state meet. Their last hurrah came earlier, at the Southwesterns meet in Cape Elizabeth, which featured loud music, boisterous cheers and ugly haircuts (an annual tradition prior to competing with shaved heads at the state meets).

Nguti and Joao-Kelivne swam the 100-yard freestyle, with three flip turns. Ndoko-Mvunda and Tumba swam the 50 free. Edzang swam the 100 breast stroke. Nzobani anchored a 200 free relay. Ndoko-Mvunda anchored a 200 medley relay. Nguti, Joao-Kelivne, Tumba and Edzang completed a 400 free relay.


All six posted their fastest times of the season.

“The team rallied around them and cheered harder for them than anybody else, and their presence has definitely made this season a memorable one,” Green said. “I’m hoping that their courage and their success will help encourage more students to join us in future years.”

Tumba first came to Maine last March after a journey through Brazil and several Latin American countries. He said his friends persuaded him to join the program, although at first he didn’t realize there would be competition, not simply instruction.

South Portland’s Eduardo Tumba lost an older brother to a drowning in Angola. Tumba had to overcome his anxiety about water upon joining the swim team. “With people’s help, I came to like it more,” he says. “It was an experience I will never forget.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Tumba had a longstanding fear of the water. When he was 10, in Angola, his 13-year-old brother drowned in a river.

With the team, he overcame his anxiety. He’s already looking forward to next season.

“At first it was challenging,” he said through an interpreter. “But other times, with people’s help, I came to like it more. It was an experience I will never forget.”


Way, who worked with Tumba and the other beginners, said she appreciated the courage required to learn a new skill in an unfamiliar environment.

“Joining a team where a lot of people have done swimming for a long time, that’s scary enough on its own,” she said. “And then being in the water – well, the water can be pretty scary, too. I think they’re really brave and I appreciate their positive attitude. They’re really open to learn and they put a lot of trust in me.”

After the new Mainers and not-so-new Mainers have connected through chlorinated water and churning out laps, their shared experience spilled into other areas of life. Teenagers from different cultures found common ground.

“I see them in the hallways and we have a conversation,” Way said. “They’ve taught me a lot. I’ve gained some friends, obviously.”

As for team dinners, Way said, they shifted from restaurants to the homes of team members, “because restaurants aren’t always the best for everyone.”

Nguti has lived in Maine for almost five years, longer than any of the other rookie swimmers. Last summer he went to a waterpark in Saco with his judo team and, while trying to impress a friend, nearly drowned.


“When I first started here, I was scared of the deep end,” he said. “But now I’m not.”

Nguti came closest of the new team members to qualifying for the state meet, but to do so he’ll need to cut nine seconds from his time in the 50 free. Edzang, who will be a senior in the fall, floated the possibility of becoming a team captain next winter.

Hard-won confidence and newfound skill have taken hold, regardless of what the clock said after any race this winter. And at the beach this summer, a new Mainer may show a family member how to get comfortable in the water or bring back a younger sibling who strayed too far from shore.

“That’s the real thing we’re doing here,” Hurley said. “Forget about the competitive thing. I just want to make sure they’re safe, and they’re beyond safe.”

She smiled.

“It’s been pretty fabulous.”

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