When the Athens Bulldog Swim Club competes, entrants put aside their school spirit to collaborate with club members from other area schools in individual events and relays.
And that’s exactly what happened in early March when an “all-star” alliance from the ABSC surged to victory in the 400-meter freestyle relay at the 2020 Speedo Champions Series Eastern Section of the Southern Zone Spring Championships, held at the Triangle Aquatic Center in Cary, N.C.
Winning relay team members included junior Karen Zhao of North Oconee, sophomore Olivia DellaTorre of Oconee County, senior Lucy Yeomans of Clarke Central and junior Ava Kennedy of Athens Academy.
The Athens-area foursome won the event in a time of 3 minutes, 30.17 seconds on the three-day meet’s final day, besting 16 other teams, including Team Greenville, S.C. (3:31.73), which finished second, and North Carolina A-NC (3:31.93), which came in third place.
“Honestly, that day we were really, really tired and we didn’t expect to win at all because we were up against some really great teams...It was totally unexpected,” said Zhao, who led off the relay with a leg of 51.56 seconds. “We didn’t even know that we’d won afterwards. There was a heat before ours and the winner might have had a faster time than us. So we were shocked.”
“We were not expecting to win at all,” said DellaTorre, whose sister Danielle DellaTorre is a junior on the Georgia swimming team. “It was Sunday and we were really tired. We were hoping to do well in our heat but we certainly didn’t expect to win. It was kind of a shock – it didn’t hit us right away.”
ABSC coach Harvey Humphries said the meet featured 70 teams, with swimmers ranging from high schoolers to professionals. States represented included North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
Humphries, who retired in July as associate head coach at Georgia (and was subsequently re-hired in November in a part-time program coordinator capacity), said the meet – which is the last one the ABSC and many other clubs will have for the foreseeable future – attracted myriad teams due to the format.
“They had an extra-large group of kids because they had the pool short coursed in the morning and then they changed it to long course for the finals every night so people could make their Olympic Trial cuts at that meet, which made it a pretty big draw for anybody that could get to it,” said Humphries, who coached at Georgia for 37 years.
Besides, Zhao, DellaTorre, Yeomans and Kennedy, the ABCS also received contributions from Ella Franklin of Oconee County and Brynn Halbach of North Oconee for the girls, and Will Foggin of Clarke Central, Henry Logan of North Oconee, Gavin Jones of North Oconee and Jackson Bates of Westminster Christian for the boys.
“It was a very good meet and it was a good experience for our kids,” said Humphries. “Out of our 10 kids, everybody got to compete at night in a final at some point in time.”
And in terms of the school spirit concept, the competitors train endlessly with their ABSC teammates, so their high school meets are more of a diversion than a take-no-prisoners competition.
“At high school meets, it’s so much fun because we can all hang out together, not just the North Oconee people,” said Zhao.
“My best friends are from my club team, not necessarily my high school team because we don’t practice with them. But we practice on our club team for two-and-half-hours each day, seven days a week. It’s kind of the opposite. I more enjoy swimming for (ABSC) than my high school – although I’m not saying I don’t like high school. It’s more natural because I’ve been doing it for 10 years.”
“We have school spirit during the high-school swimming season but when that phases out, we come together as a club team and it’s like we do go to the same school,” said DellaTorre, who has been swimming with ABSC for 11 years.
The ABSC competitors, like just about everyone else in the country, have seen their routines upended by the novel coronavirus, but they’re making the best of the situation. DellaTorre admitted that it feels “weird” not getting up every morning to work out, but she’s trying to keep fit in other ways.
“It’s been very hard and very weird,” she said. “It hurts that I can’t go swim, but I’m making the most of it by eating right and doing a lot of dry-land workouts. But I’m so used to getting up every morning and driving over to the Ramsey Center.”
“It’s been tough, because we’re all accustomed to the routine of seeing each other every morning,” said Kennedy, who has been swimming with ABSC for more than a decade. “But we’re doing dry-land workouts and running and trying to stay healthy...When this is all over, we won’t come back in tip-top swimming shape, but I don’t think anybody else will either.”
At the GHSA state meet in early February, DellaTorre won the 200 individual medley, 100 breaststroke and was part of the winning 200 freestyle relay in the Class 4-5A division; Zhao won the 100 and 200 freestyle in the Class 4-5A division; Yeomans won the state title in the 500 freestyle and finished second in the 200 freestyle; and Kennedy finished second on the 50 freestyle and fourth in the 100 free in the Class 1-3A division.