For Indian River State College’s Swimming And Diving Team, Family Bond Creates A Winning Tradition
In a state known for its year-round warm weather, it's no surprise that competitive swimming thrives in Florida. And as head coach for the Indian River State College swimming and diving team, Sion Brinn would know.
Few programs have achieved the same level of success as IRSC. The list of accomplishments is lengthy—winning 38 of the 40 events at the 2015 National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Swimming and Diving Championship; winning the National Swimming and Diving Championship title for 41 consecutive years; and holding the record for having the longest winning streak for any U.S. sport championship at the collegiate level.
Setting records and winning awards has become a tradition at IRSC. This March, the team will have a chance to add one more championship to its record when it hosts the 2016 NJCAA Swimming and Diving Championship.
The story begins in 1974. Then president Dr. Herman Heise had been searching for a way to draw people to the Fort Pierce campus. A great admirer of athletics, he found Dick Wells. Wells, an All-American swimmer himself, had a successful coaching career in his home state of Ohio before he was lured south by warmer weather. “President Heise recognized in Dick an ability to take over a room, to get things started,” Blanche Wells recalls, speaking of her late husband's beginnings at then Indian River Community College. “He (Dick) was the one who created the swim team. Created the tradition.”
Coach Wells spent four years building the foundation for the IRSC Pioneers. He had an eye for recruiting, gleaned from his years of elite coaching experience that helped him attract top talent to his new team. The first national title was won in 1975, and the consecutive years of success grew from there. This reputation for winning put the school on the map, making it a magnet for aspiring swimmers from all over the world. “He really pushed recruiting from overseas,” explains his daughter, Amy Wells Martin, herself a former IRSC swimmer.
Today, this international interest continues. The current team consists of three Swedish nationals, three from South Africa, three from Curaçao, one from Denmark and one from Malaysia. In the U.S., swimmers come from as far as Hawaii to be a part of the team. Tayla Lovemore, a sophomore, is one of the South African swimmers. She grew up at the beach in her home country, where water sports always played a large role in her life. Her South African swim coach would send a number of students overseas to continue their careers, and found out about coach Brinn through a connection at Florida State University.
“It's a tradition to come onto the team and bond,” Lovemore says. “It's such an incredible feeling.” Though she never visited the campus before attending, she fell in love with the school. She came to IRSC specifically to get better at swimming, and found that not only is the school record remarkable, the culture surrounding it is equally impressive.
That culture resonates throughout the team. And given the number of hours these students spend together, it's important that the team provides a positive environment, considering the swimmers spend two years on the team. They come in as freshman, often from homes far away, and pour their energy into forging a new life, in a new school, in a new town. They move to dormitory-style living, and make new friends through class and on-campus social events. It's a similar story for almost any college freshman across the country. Almost.
These college freshmen have to be up for a two-hour practice that starts at 6 a.m. every weekday. They then go to classes, have lunch, and attend afternoon classes before another two-hour practice from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., held every weekday except Wednesday. They have one, three-hour practice on Saturdays. And, on Sundays, they rest.
The swimmers share accommodations in the same dorms, located just two minutes from the pool. “We're basically always together,” says sophomore Matthew Nielsen, noting how the team unity supports their demanding schedules. He doesn't mind the early mornings, saying it helps him get into the groove and find a rhythm. Like Lovemore, Nielsen chose IRSC for the swimming and his own introduction to college life. The Fort Myers native hopes to go on to Florida State University once he completes his tenure in Fort Pierce this coming spring.
As is the case with many collegiate athletes, the path to their chosen sport began at a young age. Nielsen was first thrown into the pool 15 years ago when his sister started swimming, and his mother decided he could do it too. Some began swimming competitively as early as age 6. All found a passion for the sport, and pursued it single-mindedly, often at the cost of having a normal adolescent schedule.
Some swimmers, like Olivia Jacobi, have a family history of the sport. “Both my parents actually swam at UGA [University of Georgia],” Jacobi explains. “They encouraged me and my two siblings.” Jacobi's family lives in Atlanta, Georgia, a relatively short distance from UGA. It was her sister, a swimmer at FSU, who suggested that she look at IRSC. Jacobi was recruited after contacting the coaches and joined the team for the fall 2014 semester.
The scenario of a sibling influencing a college choice is a recurring one. A sister was also a deciding factor for Leah Sims to join the IRSC swim team. Sims and her sister, Olivia, swam together while growing up in Oviedo, Florida, where they were always on the same teams. When one was recruited to IRSC, it was only natural for the other to follow. “It's been a really, really great experience,” Sims says.
It's not just family ties that bring the talent to the Fort Pierce campus. The swimming world is a small community. Many of these swimmers have known or known of each other for years, before they were considering their college options. They've traveled to the same meets, and competed in the same strokes in the same events. “No matter where you go you're always going to recognize someone from the swimming world,” Jacobi laughs. The names and faces are familiar, including those from IRSC.
“A lot of people know about the school,” says Rawley Davis, a sophomore swimmer from Indiana. He points out the competitive edge to make it to the IRSC team—it's not as simple as expressing interest and trying out. “I love swimming to death. It's what I live for,” Davis explains. “You give a lot of your time, but what you get out of it is definitely worth it.” A fierce dedication to the sport is necessary to succeed at the collegiate level, particularly when the school has such a long-standing history of winning.
The meets themselves are rigorous. An intense training regimen is required, which is the same for both the swimmers and divers. Athletes may swim a variety of strokes during the year, and then compete in their specialty events during competition. It's a team-based sport, scored on the individual. Points are awarded to the individuals throughout the season, and are then added together at the end of the year. The team with the largest cumulative score determines the national champions.
The IRSC team competes in a dozen meets over the two semesters. November saw an important mid-season invitational meet hosted at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, but this year brings the most prestigious meet closer to home when IRSC hosts the 2016 NJCAA Swimming and Diving Championship. From March 2 to March 5, the Anne Wilder Aquatic Complex will be home to the most elite swimmers and divers in the division, competing to throw IRSC off its decades-long winning streak.
The swimming preliminaries will begin in the morning, with the diving starting in the early afternoon. The swimming finals will take place in the evening. It's a full four days of events, including a reception hosted by the alumni office on Saturday to honor the swim and dive alumni members. It's a glittering roster of alumni, with both 2014 award winners and 2015 award winners planning to attend. And hopefully another year added to the record as the reigning national champion to be celebrated.
But while the tradition of success is undoubtedly a large draw to the program, it's not the aspect that resonates most with the athletes. For that question, every teammate all has the same resounding answer: the bond.
“Our team is the closest team I've ever seen or experienced in any college sport,” Jacobi says. “It's a family.”
Perhaps, that is the best part of IRSC's swimming legacy.