Sylacauga competes in state swim meet
by Erich Hilkert
SYLACAUGA—When Thomas Ledin, known to his coaches and swimmers as ‘coach Tom,’ took over as head coach of the Sylacauga Aquatics program in 2010, he estimates about 22 swimmers were involved, while that number has grown to about 82 in less than four years. About 60 swimmers in the program competed at regionals, with 42 advancing to the state swim meet that begins today in Cullman.

“I remember the first year at district,” Ledin recounts. “I went down there and went to the trophy room after it was all said and done. We didn’t get any trophies. I had a bucket with about three ribbons in it and a bunch of dq slips because just about everyone had gotten disqualified. I just picked that bucket up, hung my head down and left. When I came back to the pool, I gave everyone a good speech.

“It’s the coaches’ fault,” he continues, pointing to himself. “I didn’t have good coaches. It was just me and a couple other assistant coaches. I promised myself that day ‘We’re going to get this team back and we’re going to set goals.’ I’ve made every goal. This team is above and beyond every goal that I’ve ever made for it. My coaches are fantastic.”

Ledin gives credit to the coaches around him for making this year his best personal-best since taking over. The team competed at regionals in Opelika on July 12 and 13 and finished in fourth place out of seven teams, a far cry from Ledin’s first year competing at the district level.

“This year has probably been my best year as far as coaching goes,” he said. “I finally have a coaching staff and we all agree, we all get along and we all do things like we want to because we teach the same way. It’s been the most exciting year for me as a coach because I’ve watched a lot of kids grow. We did really, really good at district. We were just a few points shy from taking third down there and being one of the big teams in the district and the state.”

Ledin said the biggest disadvantage for the coaches is having a short amount of time to train, whereas other swim teams generally have the luxury of training year-round, a significant competitive advantage.

“We basically had six weeks to train and I don’t have a covered facility here,” Ledin said. “So, I had to do extra, extra work in a short amount of time. I have a wonderful coaching staff. We get everybody ready to get them prepared for the district level and that’s our Super Bowl basically. At state, there are teams that are crazy good; we’re going to do the best we can. To get our kids to do six weeks and still take fourth place at district over everybody else and do what we do to get to state and have 42 kids go, that’s a lot.”

The Sylacauga swim team has swimmers ages 6-18. The youngest of swimmers often are still at a developmental level of competition, needing the assistance of a coach to make the length of the pool.

Bailee Curtis, a rising senior at Sylacauga High, started swimming in Sylacauga when she was six years old. She is now a coach, although she will also swim at the state level too.

“The people I’m telling what to do now—I was swimming with them for a while and now I’m telling them what to do,” she said. “So, that’s different; it’s weird. Sometimes it’s harder. It’s sometimes harder to adjust, but they all listen and we have a great practice.”

Curtis suffered a significant leg injury last year that has impacted her swimming, but despite the setback she stepped up when the coaches asked her to help the team in a relay event at the state swim meet.

“At district, the coaches asked if I would do it to help them out so I did it,” she said. “District is set up the same way as state. It works out well because I coach in the morning and I coach up until the 11 and 12-year-old girls relay. Our coaches are wonderful; I don’t even have to worry about it. I go and I get ready for my race and prepare and then swim. I’m in the last event of the day. So, it really works out. When I get out of the pool, it’s time to go home.”

Ledin has personally seen many other swimmers make significant improvements in recent years.

Katie Green, a rising sophomore who attended Fayetteville last school year, won first place at the district level.

“I swim every day, even in the winter,” she said. “I like the challenge it presents, especially right now because I’ve kind of plateaued with my swimming. I can’t drop my times, so it’s challenging to try to drop time.”

Niki McNeill, a rising seventh grader at Nichols-Lawson Middle School, will be competing at the state level for the third time this year.

“My best friend did it for a few years,” she said. “She encouraged me to try it, and I really liked it so I kept doing it. I like getting to see my friends every day. It’s fun trying to beat times.”

Ledin understands the necessity of the personal competition in the sport of swimming as opposed to meticulously game-planning for the strengths and weaknesses of an opponent.

“What we’ve worked on all year long is improving your times and improving yourself as an individual,” Ledin said. “Our motto for this year that’s on the back of our t-shirts is ‘Forever Strong.’ We teach them to be forever strong at home, be forever strong out there in the real world, be strong with yourself and be strong for your team. Don’t do anything to embarrass any of it. You get in this pool you’ve got to do it yourself. You’ve got to make it across the pool and improve yourself every time you get in the water. If you improve yourself, you’ve already won because you’ve taken off a second or a half-second.”

Ledin said as a coach he doesn’t worry about other teams either. He follows the philosophy he gives his swimmers: to constantly focus on finding internal improvement.

“Prattville has 100-and-something people on their team,” he said. “They swim year-round and they’re huge. They beat everybody by two or three thousand points. I’m not trying to beat that team. I’m trying to beat mine. Every year, I’ve increased my goals for this team, and I’ve achieved every goal I’ve ever made with this team. We made goals four years ago when I took over as head coach. We’re going to be one of the big dogs at district and that’s what we are. Coaches are calling me now; they’re watching Sylacauga. That’s what I like because we’re in the mix now.”

© 2013