Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008

Montgomery County continues to produce high-level swimming talent

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
Richard Montgomery’s Anais Menguy celebrates setting a county record in the 100-yard butterfly Saturday. A record means something in Montgomery County, which produces a plethora of Division I college scholarship swimmers, and even Olympians.
In Montgomery County, high school swimmers thrive in a close-knit community that, by comparison to some other sports, is relatively obscure.

Swimmers aren’t the big men on campus and swim meets don’t attract thousands or even hundreds of fans like football and basketball games. But when it comes to producing national-level competitors, swimming in this county surpasses the more high-profile sports.

In fact, the county has become a national leader for producing swimming talent. Two of the country’s top-five-ranked swim clubs, according to USA Swimming’s Virtual Rankings, are from Montgomery County — Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club (No. 1) and Damascus-based Curl-Burke (No. 3).

And every year approximately 35 swimmers sign NCAA Division I college scholarships from the county.

‘‘It took us 40 years at the [Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club] to get to be the fastest in the nation,” said RMSC coach Jim Schlapo, who started swimming with the club in 1970 and has also coached swimming at Good Counsel High School in Olney for 22. ‘‘And we did it by internally breeding these kids. They swim against the fastest here.”

The breeding pool

Some say the best way to mold a champion is to start young. The 50-year-old Montgomery County Swim League (MCSL) has molded plenty of swimming champions, like former Georgetown Prep star Josh Hafkin (Potomac Woods) who is in his first season at the University of North Carolina, Georgetown Prep junior Brady Fox (Hallowell) and Good Counsel alumnae Colleen Haase (Flower Valley), in her freshman season at the University of Georgia. All three will compete at Olympic Trials June 29-July 6 in Omaha, Neb.

The league is a fun, but competitive summer league for boys and girls 8-and-under (though some start as young as 5) to 18. It comprises 89 teams and about 10,000 swimmers countywide divided into 15 divisions.

‘‘Because of the big summer league, we get a huge number of kids,” Schlapo said of the swimmers RMSC, which like Curl-Burke is a large year-round club that swims in national tournaments, draws in from the county swim league. ‘‘We take the biggest, strongest and fastest and train them. We give them the opportunity, they either take it and go with it, or don’t.”

MCSL instills a sense of community-pride in its athletes, one they maintain until they’re ineligible to compete. Even college swimmers return to compete until they reach the age limit.

‘‘I love the whole neighborhood rivalry thing,” Hafkin said at last summer’s MCSL Individual All-Star meet. ‘‘I grew up at Potomac Woods. It’s my home. The swimmers are my family.”

MCSL gets children in the water and in a competitive environment early. By swimming alongside older, more-accomplished athletes, they learn what it means to compete in a sport that requires year-round commitment.

‘‘Every national-caliber athlete, at least those from Montgomery County, all started on a local neighborhood swim team,” said Manchester Farm coach Joe Flaherty, who founded Gaithersburg-based Joe Flaherty’s Dolphin’s Swim Club in 1983. ‘‘Swimming, as a sport, is closer to real life. If you work real hard, you’re going to get better. In football, you can do everything right and the ball can bounce the wrong way. In swimming you control your own destiny. There’s no guarantee you’ll be an Olympic-level swimmer. But in life there’s no guarantee you’ll be a billionaire.”

The club scene

Once young talent has been identified by MCSL coaches, swimmers have a plethora of year-round swim clubs to choose from. There are 33 competitive club teams in Potomac Valley Swimming, the governing body for USA Swimming in the Washington Area. RMSC and Curl-Burke, two of the country’s best, are the biggest. Bethesda-based Aquahoyas, founded by former 17-year Georgetown Prep swim coach Kirby Weldon in 2002, Joe Flaherty’s Dolphins, Gaithersburg-based Hydro-Sonic Tiburones, also established in 2002, and the Flying Gulls out of Fairland Aquatic in Laurel (2000) are among other choices.

Though these clubs aren’t as big — they average about 100 swimmers on their competitive teams, while RMSC and Curl-Burke have more than 1,000 — there are some advantages to being involved with a smaller club. And that’s what’s helped them survive.

Club teams follow the same age groups as MCSL. Swimmers of any age can be involved in stroke clinics. College swimmers still come back and train with their club teams.

‘‘It’s hard for us to look good in this county having RMSC and Curl-Burke with thousands of swimmers,” said Flaherty, whose team consists of 80 swimmers. ‘‘But we’ve done fine. Private enterprise will win out and survive. If a parent from our club has a question or a need they can call me, the owner of the business, they can get their coach on the phone to respond much better. They get response satisfaction. And there’s a small swimmer-to-coach ratio. We have 70 coaches on our staff.”

Swimming began to really flourish in this area when Jim Williams and Bill Ballough founded the RMSC in 1968 and Rick Curl started Curl-Burke in 1978. The RMSC is the country’s largest club team, with 1,600 athletes. It works out of five clubs throughout the county. Curl-Burke (about 1,000 members) has nine satellite facilities throughout Maryland, Washington and Virginia.

A huge asset to being involved with the big clubs is they offer swimmers the toughest competition from their own pool of talent without having to travel to national meets.

Fox, who swims for RMSC and will swim 100- and 200-yard backstroke events at the Olympic Trials, currently holds the nation’s boys 15-18 200 backstroke record. RMSC teammate and Whitman senior Mark Meyer, who will swim the 200 butterfly at the Olympic Trials, holds the country’s 19th-fastest time in the boys 17-18 200 butterfly.

Curl-Burke has spawned four Olympic gold medalists — Mike Barrowman (1992), Tom Dolan (1996), Mark Henderson (1996) and Ed Moses (2000). And RMSC has sent swimmers to the Olympic Trials every year since 1980 — Meyer, Hafkin, Haase, Fox, Poolesville High sophomore Cara Chuang and Walter Johnson senior Eric Friedland will compete there this year.

‘‘These clubs have laid the foundation in this area,” said Moses, 27, who swam with Curl-Burke from 1998-2005 and is now retired from competitive swimming. ‘‘You’re throwing thousands of kids into a program where all the work is done. There’ve been successful people in the past who’ve paved the way. The protocol is set up. It’s easy for the next person, the young talent, to come in and take what they see, everything from stroke production, training regimen, stuff they do at a meet, and build upon it for the future. It takes a lot of the guessing out of it.”

High school vs. club

High school and club swimming share a symbiotic relationship in Maryland. Student-athletes are allowed to continue their club-team training regimens and competition schedules during the high school season.

Some restrictions, including that athletes can only miss one meet and be eligible to compete in county or regional championships, were put in place to ensure that elite-level swimmers compete in the regular season and not just championship meets.

Most Montgomery County coaches, like Walter Johnson coach Jamie Grimes and Sherwood High coach Bill Shechtman, are also USA Swimming coaches. And the high school season provides another opportunity, just as MCSL does, to develop swimmers.

‘‘A lot of states legislatures don’t allow students to swim for another club while they’re swimming for high school and it’s just a bad decision by parents to let their kids leave their club coaches,” Schlapo said. ‘‘We have the perfect nexus between our club and high school coaches. Our kids are going to [club] swim practice before they go compete at Metros.”

Environment

Montgomery County provides the perfect atmosphere to generate elite-level swimmers. But achieving that level requires discipline. Most high school swimmers get up at 4 a.m. three days a week to get in a two-hour swim before school, then are back in the water in the afternoon.

Add to that, the strenuous academic requirements in the county’s schools and not much time is left for a social life.

‘‘We have some of the smartest kids and the most-dedicated parents,” Schlapo said. ‘‘Most everyone is inconvenienced by us. We have kids taking buses from middle school. We have kids taking cabs from school. In the four years their kids are in high school, they get nothing. They can’t go on a weekend ski trip. They can’t go away for holidays. They only time they have are the two weeks we take off a year.”

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