Throwback Thursday: Old Orchard Swim Club celebrates 50th anniversary

The swim club’s anniversary will be celebrated at a special party on Saturday night. This week, a couple members shared the history of the club and their favorite memories.

Swimmers from Old Orchard Swim Club form the number “50” in the pool to celebrate the swim club’s 50th anniversary.

The Old Orchard neighborhood in Cherry Hill was constructed in the mid-1960s. As the development was built, the developer donated a plot of open land on Evans Lane. Two years later, the plot of land became home to Old Orchard Swim Club.

On Saturday, the swim club will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a party at the club. Thousands of people have passed through Old Orchard’s gates since its 1966 opening. Many things have changed, but some things have stayed the same.

In the beginning

There are a few Old Orchard Swim Club members today who remember how the club got started in 1966.

Bob Rueppel, a long-time member who joined the club in the fall of 1966 shortly after the club’s opening on July 4, recalls the fundraising effort necessary to get the club started. In the mid-1960s, John Dell’Aquila chaired a committee who conducted a campaign selling charter membership bonds to Old Orchard’s residents in order to pay for the pool.

The Old Orchard Swim Club under construction in the mid-1960s.

“They tried to get people to invest in a swim club that didn’t exist,” Rueppel said. “They did an unbelievable job getting people to buy a bond for the club.”

The facility was completed in time to open on July 4, 1966. The facility included two pools, a clubhouse, picnic area and open space for other activities.

Building a championship swim team

The year following Old Orchard’s opening, a group of members got together to form a swim team at the club. Bob Rueppel was instrumental in forming the team along with Don and Myra Frank and Joan Elliott.

“We met in the early spring up at the club and decided to form a swim team,” Rueppel said. “None of us known much about swimming, but it was such a big thing in Cherry Hill even at that time.”

Old Orchard’s swim team, nicknamed the Otters, competed in its first season in 1967. However, the club was unable to compete in the Tri-County Swimming Pool Association, as it had to wait one year. For the team’s inaugural season, it instead formed the Tri-Pool League with another recently formed team in Cherry Hill, Erlton Swim Club and Pheasant Run Swim Club in Cinnaminson. Those two clubs were also on TCSPA’s waiting list.

“We actually had our championship of our three clubs in July of ’67 and it was actually the same day as Cherry Bowl,” Rueppel said. “We actually won it, it was our first trophy in our trophy case.”

Old Orchard would compete in Cherry Bowl for the first time in 1968. Seven years later, the Otters would win the first of 20 Cherry Bowl championships, more than any other swim club in the competition’s history.

“We won our first one in 1975 at Fox Hollow Swim Club,” Rueppel said. “The year before, we finished no higher than fourth.”

“The weather was awful,” Rueppel added. “The rain was absolutely incredible, but the meet went on because there was no thunder or lightning. At the end, someone said ‘I think we’re going to be close.’ When they announced we had won it, we were in total shock. It came out of nowhere.”

The Otters would win 14 of 15 Cherry Bowls from 1975 to 1989, with 1977 being the lone year in that stretch they didn’t finish in first place. Old Orchard also won five straight Cherry Bowls from 1993 to 1997.

Bob Rueppel (left) and Old Orchard Swim Club coach Chris Brookover (right) pose with the third place trophy at the 2014 Cherry Bowl

.Mini-meet gives opportunity for youngest swimmers

The club also holds an annual mini-meet for kids 9 years old and younger. Though the meet is named after Rueppel, he said he was not the man behind the meet. He credited former coach Steve Van Derhoff with getting the meet started.

The meet includes 61 events and includes “kick board” races for the youngest participants. Young swimmers from swim clubs all across South Jersey converge on Old Orchard each July for the meet.

Rueppel said Van Derhoff kept a close eye on the youngest swimmers during Old Orchard’s early years. Once kids passed their swimming certification, Van Derhoff would immediately invite them to join the team.

“Every day the kids would apply for their (certification) bands,” Rueppel said. “If a kid made his band, he would tell them, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow at 8 o’clock, you’re on the swim team.’”

A neighborhood hangout for generations

One theme resonating with many long-time members of the club is how their kids returned to the club after becoming adults. Rick Naumann, a member of the club for more than 20 years, said both of his daughters are members of the swim club today and his grandchildren swim for the Otters. Naumann has not been a member for about eight or nine years, yet he still visits the swim club to see his grandchildren swim.

“They’re dragging me back in,” Naumann joked.

Naumann and Rueppel consider Old Orchard Swim Club to be a great place for kids to spend their summer. Rueppel recalled years ago prior to the opening of Wexford Leas Swim Club in 1969, kids from that neighborhood would come to Old Orchard and get to socialize with kids who they didn’t go to school with.

Naumann felt Old Orchard was a safe and friendly place for his daughters to spend their summer vacation.

“It was such a safe place,” he said. “Once they got to be a certain age, they could ride their bikes up to the club for the day.”

Naumann believes many family members return because of the solid social programs at Old Orchard. Many of the family activities the club had in the 1980s are still there today.

“The social activities from what I can see, that has remained the same,” Naumann said. “It’s just a nice place to spend your summer. The cookouts, the picnic grove, the games for the kids, that has remained the constant.”

Rueppel said he has also seen kids who formerly spent their summers at the club move back to Cherry Hill as adults and become members.

“A lot of the kids who grew up in Old Orchard have gotten married, go to work and move back into the area,” Rueppel said. “They became members because their families were members.”

Staying strong for another 50 years

While Old Orchard Swim Club has remained a family-friendly place to spend a hot summer day for 50 years, it is facing the same challenging climate as other swim clubs across South Jersey are.

Rueppel said there was once a time in Old Orchard’s early years where families would have to wait to join the club.

“The bylaws still say we can have no more than 300 families in any one time,” he said. “The club was so popular back then. There was at least a three year waiting list.”

Hemma Boggi competes for Old Orchard Swim Club in the 2015 Cherry Bowl.

Today, Rueppel estimates membership is only around 150 families. The decline in membership has not only been felt at Old Orchard, but also at swim clubs all around South Jersey.

Rueppel believes the way Old Orchard can sustain itself for years into the future by continuing to promote the swim club to new residents and encouraging the kids of old members to join when they get older. Retaining a tight-knit neighborhood in Old Orchard is key.

“What hasn’t changed is the community relationship,” Rueppel said. “Everybody knows everyone. It’s a close-knit group.”