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Few things get a Langley student’s blood boiling more than the prospect of facing McLean in a sporting event. The two schools have perpetuated a ruthless rivalry over the years, frequently throwing decent sportsmanship to the wind in favor of maintaining total devotion to the colors on their shirts.

Ask a swimmer from either school about the rivalry, though, and you probably won’t get the kind of response one might expect.

“I know a good amount of people on their team, so it’s always fun swimming against them,” said Chris Paul, a senior captain on Langley’s swim team. “We both want to beat each other obviously, but we’re always complimenting each other after we swim. So there’s a rivalry, but there’s no animosity, especially the kind you see in basketball games. It’s friendly but competitive.”

Such is the attitude of the rivalry’s lighter side, one that tends to get overlooked next to the hubbub surrounding sports like basketball, football, baseball and lacrosse. Although those sports have sparked their fair share of ugly off-field incidents, the swim and dive teams from both schools have long shared a relationship marked more by camaraderie than hostility.

The Langley and McLean swim and dive teams practice at the Spring Hill Recreation Center together four days per week, breeding a familiarity that makes the two sides feel more like teammates than enemies. Many of them really are teammates, since they often compete on the same club teams. Separated by only a couple of miles, kids from each school have grown up around each other both near the pool and away from it.

The four squads convened in their annual dual meet last Saturday at Spring Hill Rec Center, the neutral site both sides can call home.

“Because it’s all off campus, it just kind of takes that negativity out of it,” McLean assistant coach Lori Wagoner said. “It’s not our turf or their turf.”

Such an amicable atmosphere provides a stark contrast to the contentious environment created by the schools’ fans at basketball games every year. Although the spirit displayed by both sides makes the rivalry great, students often take their passion too far, especially after the games are over. Four students were arrested and charged with public drunkenness at last February’s basketball game at McLean, and a fifth arrest occurred outside a nearby McDonald’s, where dozens of students from both schools clashed in an unruly melee after the game. Some ugly scenes also unfolded at the game Dec. 17, 2010, when Langley students stomped holes in the McLean bleachers during a raucous contest that saw a police officer injured while trying to break up the fracas.

Basketball games between the two rivals always prove difficult to control, even as extra security is employed and students from each school are required to use separate exits.

“When you look at basketball and stuff like that, you hear about the fighting and the stuff in the locker room. That just doesn’t go on here,” said Langley assistant swim coach Kristin Sandridge, who stood in for an ill head coach Ryan Jackson on Saturday. “They’re nice; you see them talking to each other, cheering for each other, they practice together. Even the dive teams share the same coach. It’s more like a party atmosphere here than a real duel.”

Although Langley has held the upper hand in the swimming pool in recent years, both schools are fielding strong teams this season. The Langley girls, who are coming off back-to-back Liberty District titles, are 4-0 in dual meets heading into Winter Break while the boys side sits at 2-2. Meantime, the McLean girls are 3-1 so far this season while the boys are 2-2.

Langley won both the boys and girls competitions Saturday, edging the Highlanders by a narrow nine points in the boys meet and by about 50 points in the girls meet. Despite the loss, McLean took away some positives from the meet, including an excellent performance from Georgia Tech-bound senior Ben Southern, who won the 500 freestyle and broke the school record in the 200 freestyle while also qualifying for the state meet in that event. The Highlanders also managed to take first and second place for both boys and girls in the dive portion of the meet.

Yet none of those results meant as much to either side as the opportunity to simply get in the pool and compete against friends. Each team was fired up for the chance to beat their school’s crosstown rival, but that competitive energy yielded to handshakes and high-fives rather than insults and punches.

“We just get along with one another,” said McLean swim coach Kevin Burke, whose team played against Langley in their annual water polo match Wednesday. “They have a great group of kids and a great group of coaches there. It’s been fun to be able to share the pool with them.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com