That message was visible poolside this season for the Norwalk High School swim program.
This past winter was the 20th anniversary of the program’s beginnings back in 1997-98. The girls team won an Invitational, and finished runners-up at two others — while three relay teams broke school records.
But how does really good become elite? It’s not an easy question to answer, though it doesn’t seem as impossible as it once did.
Only Norwalk’s Geena Freriks and St. Paul’s Gabe Dauch have reached the state championships in Canton from the Maple City. Willard’s Nicholas Bauer, who swam in the 100 breaststroke Thursday night, was the first-ever from the school to reach state.
Five underclassmen set the new relay records at Norwalk, and two of the teams made the district championships last week at Bowling Green. But trimming down precious seconds in swimming can take years of work.
“I think it’s for sure in this group,” sophomore Carissa Link said when asked about Norwalk’s next state qualifier. “If we do a little more outside of the pool, it can be the difference.”
The Norwalk Stingrays youth program is overseen by Erin Smetzer, who is also the fifth-year varsity swim coach at NHS.
All five girls on the record relays have been swimming in the program since they were as young as four years-old. The program is semi-year round, practicing together in the spring and fall at the Norwalk Recreation Center.
The youth development is only one early key, however.
“We do have a pretty solid program in the spring and fall with twice-a-week practices, but competition in the offseason would really help the younger kids excel,” Smetzer said. “The Stingrays are in talks of competing this spring with the Sandusky Aquatics Club for an offseason match.
“I think having a more competitive vibe year-round would help, instead of just in the summer,” she added. “Maybe it would mean one day forming a middle school team or program, too. But getting started at such a young age certainly helps build a better team.”
Fair or not, Freriks will be the measuring stick in the Norwalk swim community for a long, long time. But days after winning an SEC championship at the University of Kentucky, Freriks herself was quick to point out she didn’t make swimming her life as a child.
“Honestly, I didn’t invest all of my time into swimming at a young age,” she said. “I played volleyball and split half my time between the two sports until I was a senior in high school — and then I chose swimming. A lot of kids are burned out by the time college comes around because they’ve done just swimming for so long.
“I think having that balance of two sports and having an actual offseason is important,” Freriks added.
There are some built-in hurdles that make elite development difficult at times.
Area programs such as Perkins, Sandusky, St. Mary Central Catholic and Port Clinton produce state-caliber swimmers on a yearly basis. But those schools had swimming decades before any of the schools in Huron County — and have pools located at the high school.
“The ability to practice before or after school without commuting, that’s something we can’t do,” said Norwalk junior Anna Little, a member of all three record-setting relays. “Obviously it can be done and it takes a lot of extra effort, but it is something we can’t do freely.”
To Freriks’ point, several of the Norwalk swimmers are active in other sports such as tennis and cross country.
But that also takes away from potential pool time to get relay timing down.
“It will take a lot of time and dedication, but truthfully, it’s going to take how much each person wants to invest in it,” junior swimmer Sela Berry said. “Like most things, however much time and effort you put into this is what you’ll get out of it.”
There are other areas to make up time that doesn’t involve commuting across town to the Rec Center.
A key to cutting times also comes in the form of lifting weights, and shoulder stabilization exercises. Training outside the pool is something that can be done on campus at both Norwalk and St. Paul.
“We swim for two hours, but I really believe a key will be more weight training at the (Reagan) Complex (at the high school),” Link said. “I think that is an area we can get better and will really help.”
There is also a mental edge that has been gained by the girls, according to Smetzer.
“It’s really cool for them to be on the record board and have their names next to Geena,” she said. “They all pretty much know her or know of her, and I think they’re honored to be up there next to her — but it also shows them what they are capable of.”
Looking back, Freriks said her advice to any high school swimmer revolves around the mental aspect of the sport.
“The one thing I would say is mental toughness, which my coach here at UK says to me constantly,” she said. “I wasn’t exposed to that in high school really. It wasn’t easy.
“Just being prepared for that as much as you can, and just having the determination that you’re going to do great things and get better,” Freriks added. “I think it’s the key to success, honestly.”
There is no easy answer, and only 24 swimmers in each event get to state each season. But even just the challenge of trying to break through can be worth it.
“Building chemistry, when we get in the pool and it just all comes together,” Coe said. “It’s pretty neat trying to chase after those things, knowing you’re doing it with teammates who want something as bad as you do.”