London Olympics help propel area athletes back to swimming pool
Area schools have seen an increase in roster size since the Olympic Games.
Winter Park's swimming program jumped from 68 to 95 athletes, including newcomers Theresa Panchookian, left; Milhouse Dungan; and Caroline Alessandro. (George Skene, Orlando Sentinel)
"I missed it, but I loved the team aspect of water polo," Alessandro said. "That's what I was missing from swimming."
After watching the London Olympics, her feeling changed.
"When they were doing the [Olympic] relays, they were all so supportive," Alessandro said. "They were a team."
That spurred Alessandro to return to swimming, and she is not alone. Several area teams have seen their numbers increase — thanks largely to a post-Olympic boost.
"People see things on the Olympics, and they get a little bit inspired," said Winter Park coach Barry Creighton, whose Wildcats will be among the teams competing at the Lake Brantley Invitational on Saturday. "Sometimes they used to swim when they were younger and gave it up for whatever reason and come back.
"[But] if they haven't swam before, our attitude is, 'If they want to come practice every day, they deserve to be on the team.' "
Winter Park's program grew from 68 to 95 swimmers this season. Lake Highland's has gone from 30 to 95, the largest for the school in more than 20 years. Colonial's boys program has nearly doubled, from 14 athletes to 23.
"Every four years when it's an Olympic year, we see an increase," said Colonial coach Ellen Blackwell, who has been coaching for 30 years. "They get excited about what they've seen. It's more now than I've ever seen because there is more coverage."
Colonial has a varsity and junior-varsity team. Fourteen boys are on the varsity roster, and nine compete for junior varsity. The Grenadiers' girls program did not see an increase in roster size. They carry 10 varsity and two JV girls.
Colonial retained 80 percent of the swimmers who started swimming competitively for the first time in 2008 after the Beijing Games, Blackwell said.
"They see the success, and they like it," Blackwell said. "Year to year, they see that they improve."
Some programs have seen increased numbers of club swimmers.
"I've spoken to other coaches in the area, and they've seen a healthy bump in the younger kids, the 5- to 10-year-olds," Seminole coach Tony Ackerson said. "In the high-school program, our numbers stay the same."
Spruce Creek coach Karen Lehmann also is coaching her largest squad. The first-year coach originally coached in Virginia, where the roster size peaked at 53. This year, Lehmann is coaching 79 swimmers.
She estimates 8-10 swimmers joined the Hawks with no previous competitive experience.
One of Spruce Creek's swimmers joined with a couple of friends. At first, he barely could make it across the pool, but now he loves the sport.
"He climbs out of the pool with a big smile on his face," Lehmann said. "That makes your heart happy, when you see the enthusiasm in these kids."
Lehmann has used the Olympics as a coaching tool.
"I don't think it matters what level you are," Lehmann said. "It's inspirational all the way around."