Local Press: Swimmers find their strokes

Thanks to our friends at the Lake County Leader for this fun sports story about the new Mission Valley Aquatics swim team! (See it in the Aug. 1 Lake County Leader, on newsstands now!)

By Mark Robertson of the Lake County Leader

POLSON — Backstroke. Breaststroke. Butterfly. Freestyle. If you’ve watched any of the Summer Olympics on television, you may have seen them performed on the world’s highest swimming stage.

When Mark Johnston assumed his post as the first swim coach at the Mission Valley Aquatic Center, not a single one of his potential swimmers could name the four competitive swim strokes.

Now, six weeks later, more than 50 swimmers regularly attend his practices. Nearly all of them have enough of a grasp of the strokes to swim them legally in competition.

Photo by Mark Robertson, Lake County Leader

Photo by Mark Robertson, Lake County Leader

“It’s really fun because the learning curve is really quick,” Johnston said. “It’s nice because they don’t have a lot of bad habits to break.”

Many of his swimmers, having learned to swim in one of the area’s many lakes, swam with their heads above water. None had ever swum competitively.

“That’s been a hurdle…just knowing how to swim with their heads in the water,” Johnston said.

With the summer as a start on a program, Johnston hopes to have a full-blown USA Swimming—the same outfit that runs the Olympic trials—team based in the Mission Valley permanently.

“I think we have a really good nucleus for a team,” he said. “With this age group [elementary and middle school-aged kids] and lifeguard staff, they keep me young and make me feel old at the same time.”

He also hopes to attract area high school aged swimmers to compete in Montana High School Association meets this school year, provided that the high school athletics regulatory commission will allow them to pull from multiple schools like many area schools do already for other sports.

Johnston and his wife, Dana, who serves as the center’s program director and the team’s assistant coach, moved to Polson this spring and hit the ground running. They currently have 32 children on the team and about 20 adults swimming in the division USA Swimming calls “Masters.” The kids practice Monday through Thursday in the afternoons, and the Masters practice early on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings.

It was not the couple’s first time starting a grassroots year-round swimming program. They did much the same at an aquatic center in Denver. The couple developed that program much the same way they hope to do here, taking the lead with the Swim Dogs, the name they chose for the USA Swimming team.

They also became high school coaches at Denver’s George Washington, an inner city school that had very little swimming success in its past. They grew that team to more than 75 members.

The Johnstons use a very simple method based on short, race-paced training. Unlike many swim coaches, they don’t have their athletes swim many thousand-plus-yard sets. This, according to Dana, keeps young swimmers interested and trains them better to perform come race time.

“There’s no use training people to swim a mile…yet,” she said. They do, however, do plenty of drills directed toward perfecting stroke technique.

Like any successful team, the Johnstons’ team needs a good name. The center has taken suggestions from the public—some of them include Lake Monsters, Mackinaws, Whitecaps and Narwhals, among many others—and will vote on a team name Sept. 3. Dana said she would very much like the place-moniker to have something to do with the Mission Valley at large, so as not to leave out any certain communities.

The team will get its first taste of competition at an aquatic center-hosted “fun meet” on Saturday, Aug. 24.


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Mission Valley Aquatic Center
P.O. Box 774
Polson, Montana 59860

(406) 883-4567