It wasn’t as if the boys swimming program had fallen into disrepair, but the team that won three consecutive Prep League and VISAA titles (2006 – 2008) and another league crown in 2012 was down in numbers and a perennial also-ran in championship competition.
At the same time, the girls team was rocking along. For five consecutive years (2012 – 2016), it captured both the League of Independent Schools and VISAA titles. All told, since 1998, the squad won 12 league and seven state championships.
Yes, something had to give. But what?
“We had a gap,” said first-year head coach Mike Peters, who had served as an assistant to Mike Stott 10 of the previous 14 winter seasons. “We weren’t getting people to come out and swim. We were skewed toward 7th and 8th graders.”
So Peters and Stott sat down, reflected, and undertook a thorough self-analysis as coaches are wont to do.
“The girls were extremely successful,” Peters said, “so it wasn’t the training. We had to figure out what are we doing that was making it so guys didn’t want to swim. Kids glean more from their friends than from adults standing in front of them. An adult can give a million speeches. It’s not the same as when a few swimmers say, ‘Swimming is really fun. I really enjoy the team.’
“We talked a lot about how you frame the sport, how you carry yourself on campus, how you’re proud to wear the Collegiate swimming gear, how you talk about Collegiate swimming with your friends, how you carry yourself when you head off to practice.”
Seems simple enough.
“It’s hard to get people to think of swim practices as more than laps back and forth,” Peters said. “There’s camaraderie. There’s that feeling after you’ve met the challenge, after you’ve lived up to the expectations you’ve set for yourself or the coach has set. There’s that feeling of fulfillment after a hard practice.”
Those Middle School swimmers are now sophomores and juniors. A few others have joined the mix. After finishing third in the Prep League in ’13 and ’14, sixth in ’15, and fourth in ’16 and ’17, the Cougars won the 2018 title by compiling 454 points, 59 ahead of runner-up St. Christopher’s.
“It was such a sense of relief and satisfaction,” said junior captain Stephen Laming. “It had been such a long time coming. We’ve been thinking about this for three or four years. At first, it was a numb feeling because we’d been waiting so long. After that, it was joy. Immense joy.
This weekend the Cougars are a favorite (along with St. Christopher’s and Norfolk Academy) to claim the VISAA title in the two-day competition held at the Jeff Rouse Swim Center in Stafford. Three years ago, only five boys qualified for States. This time, 15 will don the Green and Gold.
“When we were younger, we knew we could have something special,” said Charles Armstrong, also a junior captain. “Everybody has bought into the team mentality. Everybody has been practicing hard and getting better. The culture’s really changed. It’s been a very special feeling. It felt so good to win the Prep League and hold that trophy we’d been waiting for.”
On February 3 at the Kenny Center at St. Catherine’s School, Junior Zach Cram won the 200 freestyle (1:42.39) and the 100 butterfly (league record 51.38). Laming won the 500 free (4:57.22). The 200 medley relay team of Cram, Iain Moore, Liam Ryan, and Armstrong (1:39.20) and the 400 free relay team of Christian Mayr, Laming, Cram, Moore (3:15.78) took top honors. As has become his custom, Virginia Tech-bound senior Andrew Scott placed first overwhelmingly in diving (league record 568.95 points).
“It’s been a whole team experience,” said Peters of the turnaround. “The kids swim for each other rather than just watch each other swim. (In the Prep League), my favorite race was the 400 free relay and watching the amount of people behind the lane. Their (the juniors’) 8th grade year, we only beat one team and got lapped. Almost every team had finished, and we had 25 (yards) to finish that last relay.
“To go from there to winning and having the entire girls and boys team and everybody in the stands going crazy as they were going down the stretch… That journey from four years back was gigantic.”
What does the future hold? Success breeds success, Peters feels.
“I’ve told them the two words I don’t want to hear on deck are, ‘What if…? followed by something negative,” he said. “‘What if I don’t achieve my goals?’ ‘What if that person swims too fast?’ ‘What if that team swims too fast for me?’
“’When I…’ statements are positive. It’s a shift from worrying about what could happen that you can’t control to controlling what you can. This year, we’ve focused not on the end but on the immediate goals, the everyday things.
“One of my favorite quotes is from (former NBA star and current ESPN basketball analyst) Jalen Rose: ‘A goal without a plan is just a wish.’ When you put a goal at the end, how do you get there? What do you do in this set? In this warmup? In this dry land? In the weight room? Little things you can control each day eventually get you to that end goal.”