Coach Lisa Starkey sparks wave of success for Valparaiso Swim Club
By Anthony D. Alonzo Post-Tribune correspondent March 13, 2013 10:54PM
Valparaiso Swim Club head coach Lisa Starkey instructs team members from the deck of the Valparaiso High School pool on March 11. The VSC is sending 28 swimmers to the USA Swimming state meet in Indianapolis on Sunday, March 17.
Updated: April 16, 2013 3:38PM
Two years ago, Lizzie Simac, then 10, represented the Valparaiso Swim Club at the USA Swimming state meet in Indianapolis. It was a productive but lonely endeavor.
Now, Simac is preparing to repeat her trip to the IUPUI natatorium for the state meet Sunday, but this time she’ll be accompanied by a club-record 27 other swimmers from a VSC team that is on the upswing.
“I was the only one (going to the state meet) with two coaches,” said Simac, a seventh-grader at Ben Franklin Middle School. “It was very lonely and I didn’t think I’d do too well. But I ended up dropping a lot of time at my first state.”
According to VSC officers, parents and swimmers, the major reason for the shift to success after some lean years was the arrival of head coach Lisa Starkey in the fall of 2010. The departure of another coach and the siphoning off of talent had left the club swimming against the current.
Starkey, a 1990 Hobart product who still holds a relay record at the school, called her swimmers “hard workers who know what’s expected of them.”
The VSC, founded in 1977, is open to youths ages 5 to 18, though the core of its competitive swimmers are between 9 and 14. High school sports commitments keep many teens away from year-round club sports.
Still, with the new practice regimens and success in meets, Starkey indirectly caused herself to become overwhelmed by the turnout; the head coach began the year as the lone coach of 95 Little Vikes. Since then, parents Stacy Marion, Leslie McCall and Chris Wingenroth have signed on as regular coaching assistants.
“Lisa does not want to take credit where credit is due,” said VSC vice president Dawn Brown, who has two daughters in the program. “She organized everything. She made sure our parent-coaches came on board knowing exactly what they needed to do following her directives.”
Little Vikes are required to be able to swim a 25-meter event, and some can go a distance of a mile. Long hours in the pool at least three times a week have turned the group into a team that has shattered numerous VSC pool records, and has gained numerous team and individual meet trophies.
This year in the NWIS conference, the VSC took third place, with the 9- and 10-year old girls winning the overall highpoint for the second year in a row.
Presently, the group of 28 Indy-bound swimmers is working to be ready for 52 individual events and eight relays.
Among the state qualifiers is the 9-10 boys 200 free relay composed of Eli Sandberg, Zach Juhl, Kyle Hahn and Liam Shepherd.
“I’ve been swimming for a while now, and I’ve gotten used to the water and how much energy it takes,” said Sandberg, 10, with his friend Juhl standing by. “I’m a sprint, or short-distance swimmer.”
The boys will cheer on the 11-12 girls medley relay team of Jackie Bontrager (back), Simac (breast), Bethany Gatlin (butterfly), and Hannah Shepherd (free), which is seeded first in the state meet in relay.
Other 2012-2013 VSC record breakers include: Bri Pniak, Janine Holleworth, Kristyn Hoffman, Shannon McCall, Carter Dahlgren, Marisa Johnson, and Shenal Karunaratne.
Some Little Vikes have years to develop their skills and potentially join their teammates in state competitions. Eight-year-old Grace Brown said swimming was a safer bet to stick with than other athletic pursuits.
“I like swimming better than other sports because it’s not as easy to fall down and get hurt,” Grace Brown said.
The team’s togetherness that many of the swimmers describe could be a byproduct of the team’s strict “top-notch” behavior and academic code, as well as its participation in charitable events and fundraisers. Brown said the team helped the non-profit 500 Turkeys organization stock the Northwest Indiana Food Bank with their “swimming in gravy” drive in November.
“I think it’s pretty cool that the team has really progressed and we’ve gotten along better,” Simac said.
Working together with a sense of camaraderie while building swimmers’ skills has many on the VSC state contingent burning to do their best.
“It’s about getting their technique down,” Starkey said. “They’re strong enough — depending on what age they are — we just give them the tools of learning how to swim each stroke. They have to have the desire — we it call it a ‘fire within them.’ That’s what makes them good.”