Author: Alex Springer (Multimedia Journalism major at Virginia Tech)
After two years of parent volunteerism, Facebook pages and hundreds of signatures, the Virginia High School League certified Chesterfield County’s swim league a varsity-level sport.
“I think that it was a lot of work. When we started the process, we were a large team, we had a big network of resources, and that’s what you needed to get it done,” said Cassie Dickerson, parent sponsor and assistant coach of James River High School’s team. “No one person would have ever been able to pull this off.”
Three years ago, a petite woman stood alone at a Virginia Senior Championships meet holding a small poster asking if the community wanted high school swimming in Chesterfield County. The signatures she received generated one of the fastest growing high school swim leagues in the greater Richmond area.
“I just decided one day “I’m going to give it a shot; I’m going to see if there’s an interest in Chesterfield,”” recalled Dickerson. “Just from a few meets with posters, we had parents come up wanting to be involved. We knew we were onto something.”
With the help of Sharon Sheble and Kathy Tanner, parents of current James River swimmers, Dickerson decided to get the ball rolling. The group created the SWIMChesterfield Facebook page; within 24 hours, the page accumulated over 500 likes. Hanover and Henrico Counties formed leagues in prior years, so Chesterfield parents wanted to take a crack at it.
Matt Porter, coach of 20 years for Granite Swim Club and three-year head coach at Cosby High School, stated, “The resources needed to be secured in order to promote swimming and be able to fund swimming. Only when SwimRVA came along did we have the proper space for VHSL, and then pool practice facilities opened up their doors.”
Interest and volunteer forms poured in from high school and middle school parents. Dickerson, Sheble and Tanner had no choice but to begin working with the school board. Without hesitation, Dickerson and her team of volunteers located coaches, formatted a two-year budget, and contacted local aquatic and athletic centers for practice facilities. Their efforts satisfied the school board with flying colors. The dream shifted to reality.
Before receiving the official word from the board, high schools began filling their rosters with swimmers, and coaches worked diligently to write rigorous practices.
“I decided to be a part of the process of bringing swimming to Chesterfield County,” Porter said. “I just wanted to be able to give some knowledge back to swimmers and see some growth. My son is on the swim team, and this gives me the opportunity to see his growth as well.”
The creation of the league expands opportunities for students in and out of the pool. Based on a 2012 study by the Journal of Sport Administration and Supervision, high school student-athletes achieved higher grade point averages and reduced dropout rates when compared to non-athletes. As more students immerse themselves into the program, more will propel themselves out of the pool into successful futures.
Upon entering the main lobby of Midlothian Athletic Club on a typical Monday afternoon, members spotted a strong girl, whose long brown hair framed the edges of her endearing smile. At her fingertips lay posters encouraging her teammates to “swim fast” in purple and green lettering. Tori Knachel, year-round swimmer and summer-league assistant coach, swims for the James River High School girls’ team as a captain. Though she swims for two other teams, Bon Air Community Association and Poseidon Swimming, she values the opportunity to represent her school.
“I’ve always wanted to be a part of a school sport because they’ve always been recognized over announcements and had awards,” said Knachel. “You can’t really show that through extracurricular activities that aren’t a part of the school.”
As a team captain, Knachel voices her and her teammates’ opinions and plans team meetings during school. As head coach of the James River team, Merry Rech plans staff meetings between the coaches and captains for fluid team communication.
“There’s a really good power balance. [The coaches] do practice and help guide us towards what they want us to do during school,” Knachel said. “You just have to let them know what you’re doing.”
Knachel helped organize a spirit night at Moe’s where a portion of the proceeds went to the James River team. Parents and children sat at tables surrounded by posters scattered throughout the restaurant wishing the swimmers good luck at their first meet.
With the VHSL certification, the county solely controls the program. Because of the efficient nature of SWIMChesterfield, the school board decided not to make any changes to the league and review any areas needing improvement during the post season. The league transitioned from club to varsity level seamlessly with many schools reaching max capacity for their teams.
According to Dickerson, from 2015 to 2016, the league increased in size by 40 percent and then by 30 percent from 2016 to 2017, making it one of the most participated sports in the county. For instance, Manchester High School went from 33 to 51 swimmers, and about 80 students tried out for Cosby High School’s team. Chesterfield County swimming surpassed Henrico County in size and achieved varsity level a year sooner.
“There was a lot of hard work by parents. I hope the county has as much enthusiasm, so it continues to grow,” Porter emphasized.
Per the new Chesterfield County standards, swim meets occur on weeknights. During the past two seasons, meets fell on Fridays. Particularly with changing start times for Chesterfield schools next year, late-night meets may become problematic. Students are concerned with meets interfering with homework time.
“At our kick-off meet last year, I was there at four and didn’t get home until 12 at night,” said Knachel. “With meets now on Tuesday or Thursday, sometimes I think, “How do I do this?”.”
In response, two events were deleted from the first meet of the 2017 season. Because of the limited number of swimmers per event, many swimmers from each team were unable to compete.
More issues surfaced in lieu of specialty centers. Some students bus halfway across the county just to get to school in the morning. In the afternoons, the same students struggle with getting to practice because pool locations are relative to the high schools.
“It’s not like football practice where you walk right out after school and then go home,” said Porter. “Honestly, I think we just need more recognition and publicity.”
Collaborating with aquatic centers ensured the initial success of the league, but many teams are pushing pool capacity. At Woodlake Aquatic Center, Cosby swimmers see the affects of lane congestion. Perhaps one day there will be enough money in the program to see new facilities built for high school use.
(Asst. Coach Andrew Raber leads starts in preparation for the first swim meet)
Despite the potential problems, the community accepted high school swimming with open arms. With the amount of volunteer involvement in creating the league, no obstacle is insurmountable.
“There’s always going to be hiccups in transition, but for the most part, parents and swimmers would have noticed nothing. It was a lot of work; I worked fulltime on a volunteer basis, and it wasn’t just me. It took hours to make this happen,” Dickerson said.
Nov. 29 marked the league’s first VHSL-sanctioned swim meet with representatives from every high school in the county in attendance. The James River Lady Rapids swept first place in every event, leading them to win first overall. Cosby High School’s boys’ team also won overall but not without a fight from the Monacan boys.
“My favorite part is probably the enthusiasm and spirit,” mused Knachel. “Most of these people aren’t year-round [swimmers], but the hype-ness from summer league translates to the high school team. It makes people want to go faster; it’s a good environment.”
(James River swimmers, Aidan and Max, enjoy hanging out after swim practice)
In early February, Chesterfield high schoolers must bring their enthusiasm to the big stage. Who will glide to the finish line, and who will be left in the wake?
“The hardest aspect will be regional and state tournaments – to see how we fit in and if we’re ready for the level of competition,” suggests Porter.
At last season’s Chesterfield County Swim Championships, a 320-square-foot VHSL sign stood erect in preparation for the following week’s 3A and 4A divisional championships. This year, with the season in full swing, high schoolers compete to return to the same pool with the same back drop with one difference. The sign will describe them.