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In the water: Why the DMV area spawns a deep pool of Olympic-level swimmers

Camille Spink just wanted the candy. That, she says, was the tradition at the summer swim meet in her small Virginia hometown of Piedmont: Winners got to go to the concession stand and pick from the pile of sugary goodies. “That was really motivating for a 7-year-old,” Spink said. 

But a funny thing happened when Spink competed in her first race: She was hooked. Nine years later, the 16-year-old Battlefield High School sophomore is one of more than 40 swimmers from the Washington area who will compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, from Friday through June 20. 

This year’s event is split between two groups, or “waves.” The first wave, for up-and-comers like Spink, runs Friday through Monday. For established stars such as Bethesda’s Katie Ledecky, the second wave begins June 13 and runs a full week.

Make no mistake: The trials represent another strong showing for a region that regularly produces Olympic-level swimming talent. At the Rio Olympics in 2016, five swimmers from Maryland and Virginia made the 47-member U.S. Olympic team: Ledecky, Jack Conger, Townley Haas, Chase Kalisz and Michael Phelps. The only states to top or equal that were California (seven) and Texas (five).

What’s, so to speak, in the water? Local swimmers and coaches gave myriad reasons for the success. They point to the abundance of swimming teams, pools, high-level training and financial resources that make the District, Maryland and Virginia such a swimming hotbed. 

“We could field an entire team just from the state of Virginia and be very, very competitive on the national level,” said University of Virginia swim coach Todd DeSorba, who actively recruits in the area. “That’s how good and deep the state from a swimming perspective is, from the Maryland level as well.”

Starting young 

Spink got her start with the Piedmont Tsunamis, a local youth swim team. Aris Runnels, a senior at Colgan High School, shares a similar experience, though her journey began at age 5 when she got involved with the now-defunct Quantico Devil Dolphins.

Community summer teams are instrumental in helping develop talent, coaches say. Tens of thousands participate at an early age, allowing swimmers to learn proper technique and hone the fundamentals. Children can’t compete in races until they are proficient in the four basic strokes of swimming: freestyle (front crawl), backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly.

Colgan swim coach Kristen Misencik said that usually begins a progression.

“A lot of swimmers who fall in love with the summer swim and want to take it to the next level will join a club team,” Misencik said.

The quality of club teams, such as Nation’s Capital Swim Club (NCAP) and Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club (RMSC), is another important factor in distinguishing the area. There, of course, are club teams all around the country, but few have the track records of NCAP, RMSC and others in the area. 

According to Potomac Valley Swimming, the governing body that oversees the region, 24 swimmers from NCAP qualified for this year’s trials, Spink and Runnels among them. The Arlington Aquatic Club (AAC) and RMSC each had two.

Coaching makes the difference. Runnels, who will compete in the 100-meter backstroke, joined NCAP at age 11. For the past few years, she has been working closely with Jeremy Linn, an NCAP coach who won a silver medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. 

Linn offered another theory. He said young swimmers can look to plenty of success stories from those who are only slightly older as motivation. “It’s, ‘Hey, my friend Katie Ledecky is doing this. Katie Ledecky made the Olympic team at 15. I can try to do this, too,’” he said. 

“The model has been there for so many years,” Linn said. “It’s been 40 years we’ve been producing Olympic-level athletes out of this area. That model is there, and everybody plugs in. It’s kind of neat to be a part of that and have it feel normal to be competing at that level. That’s what you’re preparing for.”

Resources, resources, resources

Swimming can get expensive, and maybe that’s just as important when figuring out why the area breeds so much swimming success. Parents can afford it.

Club dues at NCAP run about $5,000 per year for those at Runnels’ level, Linn said, and that doesn’t appear to include the cost of travel. 

DeSorba noted that with swimming, meets often last the weekend — resulting in multiple hotel nights, restaurant trips and other costs.

It adds up. Fast.

“My son plays soccer. We go to a soccer game on a weekend, we might drive two hours to D.C., play the soccer game and drive back,” DeSorba said. “The only expense involved is the drive, the gas. … Swimming is very different.”

In Prince William County, where schools such as Battlefield and Colgan are located, the median household income is $107,132, according to an average of U.S. census data from 2015 to 2019. The national median is $62,843. In the most recent five-year American Community Survey, 10 of the country’s top 25 richest counties were in Virginia and Maryland. Loudoun County is No. 1, and Prince William County ranks 25th.   

Those resources translate into a slew of available pools and community centers. Linn’s group at NCAP practices at multiple venues, using the pools at Vint Hill in Warrenton and the Freedom Center in Manassas. NCAP, as a whole, spans 14 locations. RMSC has five locations. 

The facilities and teams are now year-round affairs, Battlefield coach Jay Thorpe said. 

Intense training 

To prepare for this weekend’s meet, Colgan senior Matt Van Deusen regularly woke up at 3:45 a.m. to get to the pool by 4:30. Then, the almost-three-hour practice begins. 

The focus, he said, was to build on speed and power. Although Van Deusen will compete in the 200-meter backstroke, his training goes over various drills and exercises. That includes practicing for distance. Last month, they raced 3,000 yards straight for time and did threshold sets, or sprinting for 30 minutes in 50-meter intervals.

“Right now, we’re practicing seven days a week,” Van Deusen said last week.

These types of practices, though grueling, often help with a swimmer’s development. Van Deusen, in particular, has blossomed over the past year. He cut his time by eight seconds, from 1, minute 52 seconds, to 1 minute, 44 seconds, in the 200-meter backstroke. The new time caught the attention of college coaches this winter, and Van Deusen is now committed to swim at the University of North Carolina.

Spink, meanwhile, said getting to race against other elite swimmers regularly has pushed her. For the past two years, she has been part of NCAP’s “Gold I” level, meaning she often faces other Olympic-level swimmers. “It’s been really great to have opportunities to race against them,” said Spink, who will compete in the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle in Omaha. She registered a 25.86 in the former and a 56.01 in the latter to make the trials.

Not everyone at the trials will qualify for the Tokyo Games next month. Only a select few from the first wave will qualify for the second wave, making it an uphill battle to qualify for the Olympics. In the second wave, only the top two swimmers in each of the 13 individual races will qualify for the games. 

According to Potomac Valley Swimming, Ledecky and Erin Gemmell — the 16-year-old daughter of Team USA assistant and NCAP coach Bruce Gemmell — were the only swimmers from the area to qualify in seven races, though there’s no guarantee that they will compete in each event. Linn said Torri Huske, Andrew Seliskar and Phoebe Bacon all have “legitimate shots” at making Team USA as well. 

Just making the trials in one race, however, is a significant accomplishment.

“It’s the top 1% of swimmers,” Linn said.

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