Summertime, and the games are evolving
Emily Dobrindt stood on the podium of a steamy Blodgett Pool as a champion.
The Milton High rising senior had finished as high as second place in the 500-yard freestyle at last fall’s Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association Division 2 Championships. Thenat the Bay State Summer Games July 6, she climbed to the top of the medal stand for gold in the 400-meter freestyle as part of a packed two days of competition at Harvard University.
It was her sixth appearance at the Summer Games, and before diving in to also win the 800 freestyle competing for the South Shore Strypers, she conceded that she once feared, given all the sports the competition includes, that swimmers might get lost in the shuffle.
“But I never felt like they shorted us anything or they treated us any differently,’’ she said. “We get the same medals, and the same jackets, which is always super fun. We get the same amount of recognition on their Instagram and all of their social media.”
This year, too, swimmers earned three of the six annual Bay State Games Future Leaders Scholarships. Dobrindt won one, along with Westborough’s Nishka Pant and Mattapan’s Keleyia Rochelle.
Like Dobrindt, Pant appreciated her sport’s prominence in the games.
“Swimming is a sport that people think is great at the Olympics,” Pant said. “Then they forget about it for four years until the next Olympics. I think the sport is underrated. It’s great that the Bay State Games puts so much effort into the sport.”
The other scholarship winners were Stow’s Jacqueline Smith in archery, Dedham’s Alondra Msallem in track and field, and Wenham’s Ella Stanwood in figure skating.
That all six were young women was not lost on Msallem.
“Having all of us being female is pretty nice to see,’’ she said. “It’s a good, powerful way to communicate the things females are doing right now. It’s a good time to be female.”
The girls’ scholarship sweep reflects how the games have evolved during their 37-year history. For years, the focus was on the Summer Showcases in team sports such as soccer, basketball, baseball, softball, and hockey with regional team rosters often including many of the top players in the state. Recently, though, participation in those sports has been siphoned off by summer club-level competition, and the tourney has looked to stay relevant by increasing its focus on what were once considered secondary sports.
“When I tell people I do archery I get a ‘No way!’ or some weird sort of glance,” said Smith, the winner in that sport. “But I have definitely seen more teams and more programs for beginners around. You can tell that archery is growing and it’s really nice that the Bay State Games is bringing light to more obscure sports that not everybody is thinking about.
“It’s good to know that if you are not a soccer person or a softball person, then you don’t have to think that you are just not a sports person,” she said. “It shows kids there are more sports out there they can try.”
By July 14, the Bay State Games will have wrapped up its soccer, lacrosse, and field hockey showcases at Waltham’s Veterans Field Complex, as well as baseball at Boston College High, softball at Cambridge’s Danehy Park, and hockey at the New England Sports Center in Marlborough. But July 20 and 21 will bring weightlifting, fencing, 6-versus-6 field hockey, and the revamped boys’ basketball competition that pits high school teams against each other instead of mixed teams from each region.
On July 27 and 28, 36 rugby sevens teams will clash at Weymouth’s Union Point in a battle of what’s become the fastest-growing sport for the Games.
“There are so many choices for these athletes in sports like basketball, hockey, and soccer that it’s a much more crowded market than it was 15, 20 years ago,” said Kevin Cummings, the Bay State Games executive director. “We have added sports that may not be as mainstream and where there aren’t the opportunities to compete in them that there are in some of the others. We are not abandoning the team-sport model. We are just looking at giving athletes a lot of sports to choose from.”
That broadening included this year’s inaugural FootGolf competition in Acton June 22, and the first stab at Pickleball, in Westford July 27 and 28.
But the scholarship component of the competition remains critical. The Bay State Games has awarded more than $400,000 in scholarships since the program began in the mid-1980s, with this year’s recipients indicative of the increasing inclusion of sports that are a step or two behind the traditional headliners.
The scholarship process involves an application, questionnaire, and follow-up interview.
“I liked that they wanted to know you as a person more than just you on a piece of paper,” said Mattapan’s Rochelle, one of the winning swimmers, who has attended Wellesley Public Schools since kindergarten. “They wanted to understand what it was like to be me as an African-American female in a majority-white school doing a majority-white sport.”
As the Bay State Games closes in on a fifth decade, the days of a University of Massachusetts Boston complex packed with Division 1 college scouts watching as many sports as could be crammed into the Dorchester campus are gone, replaced with a wider net whose biggest participation levels this summer are track and field, badminton, and swimming.
“With high school sports, it’s always football, basketball, and then lacrosse,” said Dobrindt, the Milton swimmer. “They are super big and super popular, which is great. They are amazing sports. But swimming is pretty popular in New England too. So to be able to have a statewide meet that isn’t just high schools is really nice.”