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Putting swim world’s focus on Charlotte

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One after another the records fell, until these four swimmers became the fastest teenagers the country has ever seen.

SwimMAC teammates Jack Manchester, Michael Chadwick, Matthew Josa and Kyle Darmody this year became the first quartet to hold every national relay record in a single age group, according to USA Swimming.

But history may view their accomplishment as something larger – a sign that Charlotte has finally stepped atop the podium of swimming powerhouses.

For decades, the city was mired in a cycle of producing world class swimmers only about once every generation. Despite its successes, Charlotte was the worst kind of athlete, the kind that failed to reach its potential.

Now, Manchester, Chadwick, Josa and Darmody have emerged among the first wave of age group swimmers fully molded by Coach David Marsh, who won 12 NCAA titles at Auburn before joining the city’s largest club, SwimMAC, in 2007.

The college-bound seniors will compete in the Charlotte UltraSwim, which starts Thursday at Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center.

Their teammates are excelling as well. For the second year in a row, USA Swimming in December named SwimMAC the nation’s top 18 and under club.

Meet founder Jeff Gaeckle knew this could happen.

Seven years ago as president of SwimMAC he told anyone who would listen that if the organization could persuade a top college coach to focus on the club level, the result would be elite, national athletes.

Olympians, even.

At the time, though, Gaeckle was frustrated.

“Truthfully,” he says. “We were one of the more underperforming programs in the country.”

‘Corona Paper’

In his quest for a new coaching director, Gaeckle sought advice from the nation’s top coaches, including Marsh.

Marsh, not yet a candidate, shared his vision for improving SwimMAC, and American swimming.

Too many coaches, he said, worked kids mindlessly, amassing yardage at long practices. Short term gains came at the expense of technique. Teenagers burned out before hitting their physical prime.

“He said if we take our time, it’s not that important to be fast at 8, 10, 12 years old,” Gaeckle recalls Marsh saying. “It’s crucial that they learn their technique properly.”

One day Gaeckle sat on his front porch and drafted a bold proposal, a three-page document. Across the top, in capital letters: “A FEW THOUGHTS!” Bullet point after bullet point, Gaeckle described the traits the club needed in a leader.

As he wrote, Gaeckle drank a few beers. The manifesto became known as the “Corona Paper.”

Today, the paper reads like a description of Marsh.

In October 2006, Marsh, arguably the best college coach swimming had ever seen, announced he would leave after the season to join SwimMAC.

After Marsh arrived, Gaeckle recalls standing outside the humble indoor swim facility at Johnson C. Smith University. Inside the fogged windows, Marsh oversaw a practice not of NCAA champions but high school kids.

“People would really be surprised to see this,” Gaeckle recalls thinking.

The next wave

From December to April, at a series of meets, the foursome set records in five relays: the 200, 400 and 800 yard freestyle and the 200 and 400 medley relays.

In freestyle relays, Josa is the leadoff man. He’s got the best start.

Then come Manchester and Chadwick.

The closer: Darmody.

Why him?

“Because Kyle never loses,” Chadwick says.

Darmody nods.

“I like the pressure, I guess,” Darmody says.

Darmody of Providence High School comes from a family of swimming siblings that includes brother Kip at Texas. He will compete at Auburn.

Josa, a home-schooled student from Fort Mill, will swim for Queens University in Charlotte.

Chadwick, whose father is pastor of Forest Hill Church, will graduate from Charlotte Latin and swim at Missouri.

Manchester of Hough High will swim at Harvard.

Focus on technique

A few things stand out to Manchester about training at SwimMAC.

For starters, the world class coaches and other top training partners. Members of Marsh’s Team Elite, post graduate swimmers at the Olympic level, often train alongside the younger athletes.

But most of all, technique. “Piling on yards can only take you so far,” Manchester says. “It’s about efficiency through the water, building efficiency.”

As practice starts, Marsh stands on the pool deck and turns philosophical about proper training and its payoffs.

Marsh says the generation born post-1990 and amid technology has trouble understanding delayed gratification. Rewards, he says, “don’t come because they’re right or fair,” but from hard work.

Because of that, Marsh says, he’s not surprised these four set an unprecedented number of national records. He says he’s just as proud of their character and academics.

“I’m proud that they’ve made good college choices,” Marsh says.

Asked about his focus on drills and proper execution, Marsh points to the pool.

Swimmers perform an odd-looking drill where one swimmer kicks on his back, pushing against the bottom of the feet of another swimmer. “No one else in the country is doing that,” says Marsh, explaining how it enforces proper body position.

New era

Mel Stewart, a Charlotte area native and butterflier who won two gold medals at the 1992 Olympics, tracks all levels of the sport on his web site swimswam.com.

He says like others from their generation, Manchester, Chadwick, Josa and Darmody were motivated at a young age by Michael Phelps.

But he says their recent sweep of age group records is a direct result of another factor. “There’s the Michael Phelps effect and then there’s the Marsh effect,” Stewart says.

Stewart and Ricky Berens – Charlotte’s more recent gold medalist, in 2008 and 2012 – say the relay team and other nationally ranked high school swimmers at 800-member SwimMAC prove a new era is under way.

Berens, who will compete at the UltraSwim, remains stunned that one group of four swimmers could shatter records in such a variety of relays. They competed in the 15-18 age bracket.

The shortest event, the 200 medley relay, is all-out sprint, with legs of backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle. The longest, the 800 free relay, requires each to perform a 200 yard freestyle, considered a middle-distance event, and Berens’ specialty.

“That’s just absurd,” Berens says.

What’s actually hard to fathom is the future.

The foursome, impossibly tall and thin, haven’t even started serious weight training yet. They may be years from their physical prime.

“They’re going to make some college coaches look really good,” says Marsh as he watches swimmers train, this time on a different drill.

For this one, they glide past wearing special snorkels, taking stroke after stroke toward perfection.

Miller: 704-358-5107
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