At Old Rochester, swim team off to a fast start

With coach Carly Suzan in the middle, Old Rochester Regional High School’s newly formed swim team prepared for its first competitive event, held at Seekonk High School.
With coach Carly Suzan in the middle, Old Rochester Regional High School’s newly formed swim team prepared for its first competitive event, held at Seekonk High School. Credit: Photos by Paul E. Kandarian for the Boston Globe

MATTAPOISETT — The Old Rochester Regional High School swim team recently won the first race at a meet at Seekonk High School. They went on to win other races, including the girls’ division defeating Dighton-Rehoboth Regional High School overall by 100-50, with the boys losing to Dighton-Rehoboth by a slim eight points. They also picked up a handful of second- and third-place finishes.

Not so extraordinary, unless you consider that, just a few months ago, there wasn’t even a swim team at Old Rochester.

“We didn’t go in looking for a win or thinking about losing,” said coach Carly Suzan. “But just to see how we did as a team, and where everyone would fall into place.

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“They did phenomenal,” Suzan said. “We only have six boys on the team, and four of them are brand-new swimmers.”

Chrissi Feldkamp-Gelson, whose daughter Cate is on the Old Rochester team and took first place in the 100-yard freestyle in Seekonk, said a group of parents whose children are swimmers wanted them to have a place to compete locally.

Most student swimmers living in the school district of Marion, Mattapoisett, and Rochester for years had to go to places like Bishop Stang High School in Dartmouth to pursue the sport they loved, she said. Suzan, a Mattapoisett native who now lives in Westport, had gone to Stang to swim.

The parent group, dubbed FORS — Friends of ORR Swimming — went to the School Committee in June, and were told if they could raise $7,500 by Oct. 1, the team’s formation would be approved, with the school district taking over funding after three years if it was in the budget.

“The support we got right from the beginning from the School Committee, principal, and athletic director was unbelievable,” Feldkamp-Gelson said. “They were behind us all the way.”

Many fund-raisers later, they hit their goal.

The team, consisting of about 30 student athletes, most of them girls, practices five days a week at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth pool. Nov. 26 was the team’s first practice.

They had only seven practices before their first meet, Suzan said.

“It truly surprised me how fast it all came together,” said Old Rochester principal Michael Devoll. “The swimming culture was new to me, and I didn’t realize how passionate a base we had. The parents group ran with it; they did a great job with fund-raising and making the community aware of the team.”

Devoll met with a few seniors on the team the day of the first meeting, wondering, he said, “how they were going to do. I saw the kids the next day and thought, wow, we’re amazing. I’m looking forward to seeing some of their meets.”

Creating a new high school team from scratch isn’t new at Old Rochester. Three years ago, the school added lacrosse for boys and girls to the sports curriculum. But with that, said athletic director William Tilden, there was a thriving youth-lacrosse system in place with some 500 children at all levels to feed the new program.

“Swimming wasn’t like that: It was all brand new; we had it OK’d back in June and thought it would take a one-year fund-raising effort,” Tilden said. “But the group hit the ground running and raised the money by the time the school year started.

“It just goes to show you,” he said, “that if a group wants to make it happen, they’ll make it happen.”

At the meet in Seekonk, the Old Rochester Bulldogs filtered into the pool area of the hot, humid Ellis Mayers Natatorium looking a bit nervous behind Suzan.

But then the team warmed up in the pool, and in the first race, a relay event, it took first place. The students on the sideline exploded in cheers, as did parents in the audience.

“I almost had tears in my eyes, watching this,” said Cathy Mariner of Marion, whose daughter Julianne was swimming that day. “To see these kids, with all levels of abilities, to see it all come together. . . . I just can’t describe it.”

“This just shows we can be competitive in the first meet,” said Dan Wentworth of Middleborough, whose son Nathan swims freestyle on the squad. “I just can’t believe it all came together so fast.”

Senior Rose Haznar, a tricaptain on the team with junior Todd Johnson, 16, and senior Isabelle Gillis, 17, said she and the other athletes didn’t know what to expect in their first competition.

“Honestly, I didn’t think we’d do badly but didn’t think we’d win,” she laughed. “But Coach says she sees a lot of promise in us.”

Haznar, 17, had gone to California last year with a student intercultural program, and her group was told by Devoll to keep their eyes out for anything interesting they’d like to see at Old Rochester.

“They had a swim team out there, and I was always interested in swimming and thought it would be great to have one at home,” she said.

The sport is new to Johnson, who plays lacrosse and got into swimming to get into better shape. He’s one of a handful of males on the team.

“Some of us haven’t swum in a while or not at all, and those are the ones we really like to work with,” said Johnson, who took second in a freestyle event at Seekonk. “For our first meet, it was great to have each other there, pushing each other.”

During each event, teammates not in the pool stood at the end of the swimming lanes exhorting their friends on, as did Suzan at the side, waving her arm and shouting encouragement and directions.

“Cheering really boosts the team,” said Gillis. “Even if they can hear just a tiny bit of cheering, they’ll swim faster.”

She wants to attend the University of Michigan or University of Connecticut after high school, saying, “Both have great swim teams.”

The Old Rochester season runs through the end of January. But it could be extended.

“If we qualify, we go to state competition in February,” Suzan said. “We’ve already got one boy who’s qualified and a couple of girls are close in their events, and I know they’ll make it.”

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