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Why the BYU swimming team went to Puerto Rico while other teams stayed home

SALT LAKE CITY — Like quite a few other college programs, BYU’s swimming and diving team booked a training trip to Puerto Rico during the holidays before Hurricane Maria hammered the island.

Unlike the other 16 squads, the Cougars actually followed through with their plans.

The BYU swimmers, divers and staff members haven’t heard the end of it since arriving in Puerto Rico last week — in a good way.

The young BYU men and women — and the rest of the group — also made a splash away from the pool with their service.

“I can’t even tell you how grateful they are for us to be here,” BYU swim coach John Brooks told the Deseret News in a phone interview from the U.S. territory.

Because the storm did so much damage to the island’s infrastructure and so much of a media emphasis has been on the poor conditions — and they are still rough in some parts, for sure — the other college teams opted to train elsewhere.

Brooks, who’s been with BYU’s swimming program since 2008 and the head coach since 2012, decided to investigate the situation further before altering plans for their winter training camp. Instead of relying solely on media reports, he sought “real feedback from real people.” He spoke with an LDS mission president on the island. He conferred with members of the LDS Church who live in Puerto Rico. He consulted locals to assess how safe or dangerous it might be for the college team.

From doing his travel homework, the coach discovered that the university where they were scheduled to train was located on the least-damaged part of the island (the west side). Electricity had been restored. The water — for drinking and swimming — was clean. Groceries were available. Cellphone service was available, albeit a bit spotty.

Brooks received approval to proceed with the plans. The conditions: Everybody who went had to sign a waiver and provide their own insurance. Although admittedly a bit hesitant, he felt a responsibility to Puerto Ricans who'd planned on them staying there. He knew these people who heavily rely on tourism needed a boost.

“As Americans, if it’s safe to go, why are we not going?” Brooks said. “Why not do our part and bring our money?”

Courtesy BYU swimming team

Because so many tourists have canceled travel plans — including a number of swim teams — a lot of employees have been laid off from tourism-related businesses. Even the swimming pool at Mayaguez University of Puerto Rico, where BYU is training, had to let go of 20 lifeguards. There just wasn’t enough work for them.

“It trickles down to everyone that’s here,” Brooks said. “Every single person every single day says, ‘Thank you so much for being here!’”

Brooks, a University of Utah alum who's following in his father Skip's BYU coaching footsteps, compares it to somebody planning a birthday party for 20 only to have nobody show up except for a friend who arrives late. Spirits were lifted, he's been told, because BYU swimmers and divers didn’t bail during tough times.

Locals have told him, “Having you guys come gives us hope. You’re motivating us just by being here.” That, he admitted, is “pretty cool.”

Puerto Ricans have another reason to be thankful for the Cougar crew of 64.

BYU has had a packed schedule, with two practices and one weightlifting session a day. Throw in time for meals, rest and a 40-minute commute from the hotel to the university pool, and there hasn’t been much free time.

Even so, the Cougars devoted two half-days to do humanitarian work. They’ve cleaned up debris, cleared branches, helped build roofs, distributed solar lights and delivered five-gallon filtration buckets, donated by a previous humanitarian expedition in conjunction with Light Up Puerto Rico, that turn collected rain water into potable water. FBI agent Kevin Pearson and locals have helped them serve others in need, including giving them supplies.

They've been easy to spot with their bright yellow shirts — with BYU logos and the word "GLORIOUS" on them — made specially for this training/humanitarian trip.

“Before the hurricane, it was like a jungle,” said Brooks, who’s been to Puerto Rico with BYU swimmers in the past. “And now it’s like a mess of a jungle.”

Even though their area has power — they’re staying in Rincon, which is two hours southwest of San Juan — remote homes and villages in the island’s interior are still without electricity. There are power lines that are still touching the ground in spots. Some poles are bent. Some homes on the coast are halfway in the ocean.

Courtesy BYU swimming team

But the jungle is less of a mess thanks to the Cougars.

Along with obviously being good for locals, Brooks said the service is “good for our team.” They would have missed this opportunity if they’d taken an easier detour to train in Southern California, where they've trained the past few years.

“What good do we do if we just go to San Diego?” Brooks said. “Our objective is to come here and train, but we wanted to come here and do something and help where we can.”

Puerto Ricans who have fruit stands, local cooks who grill hamburgers for tourists and employees of the gym, hotel and the RUM Natatorium pools they’ve used are deeply appreciative for their patronage, too.

“The blessing for us is our athletes are having a once in a lifetime experience,” Brooks said, “and that’s pretty cool.”

As a neat bonus, Brooks’ 7-year-old son was with him as they handed out buckets to help people get drinking water.

“Hopefully,” he added, “he’ll never forget that.”

Some Puerto Ricans certainly won't.