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MAKING WAVES by Kristen Ryan

The CHS boys’ swim team helps to net a strong season

Columbia High School Swimmer Kamaria Graham

For the Columbia High School swim team, time in the water is private, focused and alone, but each time they turn their heads to take a breath, they hear the cheers of their teammates, coaches and parents. Energy vibrates through the pool, and they can feel it.

Swimming is a unique sport at Columbia in having no tryouts and no cuts. Some swimmers have been competing since they were tiny, while others have no competitive swimming experience. Still, everyone is welcome and everyone can excel.

“You can jump in the pool and have a really good shot at scoring points. You only have to beat one guy,” Head Coach Maggie Keenan says. “We covered every lane in every single meet. We had a lot of superstars, but we also had a lot of novice swimmers who were really able to contribute.”

The girls’ team outnumbers the boys’ three to one, and their undefeated

seasons, appearances at the Meet of Champions and state championships are numerous.

“The boys have been in the shadow of the girls’ team,” Keenan says. “They were excited for the girls, but the boys weren’t having their own chance to be celebrated until this year.”

The 2019 boys’ team state tournament meet came down to the last relay. Keenan had done her research and knew that Columbia and Morristown were separated by hundredths of seconds, and that this meet would be extremely close.

Declan Lynch broke several records during his senior year, contributing to some exciting wins for the boys team. Photo by Jane Alexander.

Going into the final relay event, they were down and Keenan knew they had to earn first and second place to win. She split the two, four-man relay teams and distributed the four strongest swimmers across two teams. The strategy worked: The relay teams took first and second, and both the girls’ and the boys’ teams moved into the second round of the state tournament – the first time in more than a decade that the boys had made it to the second round. Many of the girls attended the meet to support their teammates.

In the boys’ next meet, round two of the state tournament, senior Declan Lynch broke the team’s record in the 100-yard freestyle event. He beat the record set by Henry Scott in 2010 by a tenth of a second.

“I was so happy to see my time up on the board,” Lynch says. “I had memorized Henry’s time, so just seeing that I’d beaten it in that meet was just so exciting. It was probably the best experience I’ve had at Columbia swimming.”

That wasn’t the only record Lynch broke this year. At the conference meet he set the record for the 500 freestyle, also held by Scott, by 3 seconds.

“Going into senior year, my fellow captains and I were super excited to see what was going to happen,” Lynch says. “We had some great wins and some tough losses and overall we were thrilled. It was just a great season.”

Until four years ago, the team swam at Columbia High School’s historic pool. Although it was too small to host home meets or allow all of the swimmers to practice together, athletes, parents and coaches still considered it important enough to maintain. Despite their valiant effort to preserve the pool, the school district opted to dismantle it and utilize the space in other ways. Now the teams swim at the Union Boys and Girls Club pool.

“These seniors never got to swim in the Columbia pool. It would be lovely if we were still there; it’s so convenient, and it was ours,” Keenan says. “But we’ve made the new pool our own; it’s super close, and there’s room for everyone to practice together.”

These seniors received inflatable pool floats on Senior Night. Photo by Jane Alexander.

The athletes enjoy many traditions, both in and out of the pool. The older girls mentor younger swimmers by pairing them with a “big sis.” Every meet starts and ends with a silly cheer from each side, first the girls, then the boys. On Senior Night the graduates received inflatable pool floats, which underclassmen signed, yearbook style, with Sharpie markers. Team pasta dinners hosted at the athletes’ homes are another favorite: “It doesn’t have to be at a big house,” Keenan says. “They just find space wherever, sit together, eat their food, play board games or goof around until it’s time for practice.”

The parents also get into the fun, with dads shaking pom poms and moms sporting “swim mom” T-shirts adorned with, “Is it hot in here?”

Keenan and Assistant Coach Chris Aguero both grew up in Maplewood and swam on the Maplewood Makos, the town’s swim team, as well as the Columbia High School swim team. The record board at the Maplewood Pool, where Keenan swam as a Maplewood Mako from ages 8-18, still bears her maiden name, Maggie Singler.

The boys huddle for their team chant before a meet. Photo by Jane Alexander.

Indeed, most of the Columbia High School swimmers began as Maplewood Makos or South Orange Dolphins, and some started as young as 6 or 7. The evolution from gangly frog jump to graceful starts and fluid strokes comes from years of hard work and dedication. Even the littlest Makos and Dolphins are in the pool every morning at 7:00, except for this year. 2020 has been unusual in every facet of life, and competitive swimming is no exception.

South Orange and Maplewood canceled the town teams’ seasons early in the spring, leaving hundreds of swimmers without a sport, and Columbia’s coaches without their farm teams. The summer records set in 2019 will remain unbroken in 2020.

“I can’t even imagine not having swim team in the summer,” Keenan says. “It’s a permanent fixture.”

Other swimmers find the sport later, such as Coach Aguero, who started swimming as a freshman on the Makos and swam during his junior and senior years at Columbia.

Keenan and Aguero coach every athlete for four years, so they get to know them well, and enjoy watching them grow.

Assuming Keenan and Aguero can coach a normal (or normal-ish) season this winter, they have big plans to acknowledge and embrace their town-team roots and give younger swimmers a taste of what the high school team is like.

“We are excited to host a special event for younger Mako and Dolphin swimmers,” Keenan explains. “We’ll invite them to be our guests for a meet or a practice, give them a chance to meet the swimmers and feel like a part of the team.”

Kristen Ryan is a swim mom who can’t begin to count how many meets she’s attended, and she’ll be the first to tell you that yes, it’s always hot in there.

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