Reid Withey got a whiff of greatness, swimming at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“It was the best experience of my life,” said the 13-year-old, a YMCA Cortland Stinger. “It was an amazing experience to train in a 50-meter Olympian pool, with starting blocks.”
Not to mention seeing boxers, paralympians and marathoners, all stellar athletes from across the United States.
Lauren Mott, 14, a Stinger for seven years, does the 200- and 500-yard freestyle.
“I think the altitude helped,” Mott said.
The city is 6,025 feet above sea level — more than a mile. Having less oxygen to breathe there made breathing seem easier back in Cortland.
Withey, of Homer, Mott and Austin Lind, both of Cortland, all members of the Stinger swim team, spent their weeklong February break at the training center thanks to Seth Williams, a Cortland native and head coach of the Skaneateles YMCA Lightning Swim Team.
Williams, the nephew of Stinger team founder Dick Williams, was a swimmer who trained for the Olympic Trials in 1996 and swam for Syracuse University from 1991 to 1995.
Williams said of his Olympic trial: “You have to be in the top two, I came in 18th.”
He was also a YMCA National champion in the 100- and 200-yard backstroke when he was in high school.
“The path to get to the elite level of swimming — it’s a mystery to most,” Williams said. “My goal is to show kids in the area what it takes to be good.”
Not only did he take the three Stingers on the trip, he took three Oneida Y, one Skaneateles Y and two Binghamton swimmers.
Swimming in Cortland
Williams swam for his uncle in the ’80s at the YMCA. Dick Williams founded the Stingers in 1968 and coached there for decades.
And Dick Williams in turn swam for James “Doc” Councilman at Indiana University, his nephew said. Councilman got his first head coaching job at SUNY Cortland and was later known as the Father of Swimming, said Seth Williams.
Councilman revolutionized the crawl and made other contributions to the sport. He also coached for the U.S. Men’s Swim team that won nine of 11 gold medals in the ’64 Tokyo Olympics and 12 of 13 gold medals in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, according to his 2004 obituary in the New York Times.
Dick Williams of Homer “knew the path,” Seth said.
“Most Olympians practice four hours a day,” he said, two hours in the morning, two more later in the day.
“And they are lifting weights and doing chiropractic workouts two to three hours a day,” Williams added.
Seth Williams would swim in the morning, run every other day, bike every other day, and practice with the Stingers swim team at night in high school.
“I talk about my experience to make it to the elite level,” he said.
Today, Mike Falls is head coach of the Stingers, a job he’s held on and off since 1996.
“I started swimming when I was 5 —45 years a swimmer,” Falls said. Now his 9-year-old is on the team, in his fifth year.
The Stingers Team has 65 kids and nine co-coaches, seven of whom were Stinger swimmers.
Kids practice five times a week and compete in about 20 meets a year, traveling to Buffalo, Watertown, Binghamton and Long Island.
Swimmers start with the fundamentals, stroke drills, Falls said. Then they work on strength and endurance. Now, as the kids prepare for a state championship meet, they work on improving speed.
“Swimming is mentally a tough sport,” Falls said. New swimmers should have no fear of the water and a good attitude.
Lucas Johnson, 10, and his brother, Noah, 7, of Cortland, are in their first Stinger season.
“I like swimming a lot,” said Lucas, at the YMCA in Cortland earlier in the month.
Noah didn’t even know how to swim when he started in September. He used flippers and a paddle bar to get down one length of the pool, said his mother, Megan Johnson.
Now he’ll do the 25-yard backstroke and freestyle in the YMCA state championships this month.
“This is the first sport they both really like and it fits,” Megan Johnson said.
Annie Steve, 23, is a Stinger coach, former Stinger and swam at LeMoyne College.
“I love coaching,” she said. “It’s a good group of people.”
“Swimming’s hard work,” she said. She did it for 14 years, 10 as a Stinger and four in college. “Best time of my life,” she said.
It helped her develop discipline. “I was always focused. I put my head down and got what I needed to do done. I got done with a B.A. in three years and my master’s in two years.”
States, Colorado, possibilities
Reid Withey credits both Falls and Williams with showing him how to lengthen his stroke and swim faster.
Withey, Mott and Lind are among the 21 Stingers going to the YMCA State championships March 20 to 22 in Buffalo.
It’s a group effort, with support from families who’ve been involved in the season from day one.
When he was in Colorado Springs, Withey didn’t want to come home, he said. “I got so used to that pool and the altitude there.”
“When I take kids up there, they have to be one of the better kids,” said Seth Williams. “We did two hours of swimming in the morning and two hours in the afternoon.”
Seth Williams geared the kids workouts to their ability and age: “I can’t blow their sprockets as an Olympian.”
Williams had to apply to the Olympic Training Center to make the trip, his second. And parents put in the money for the trip. Williams took many of his Skaneateles swimmers last year, his first time.
As a Niagara District Coaches representative and CNY YMCA Swim League member, his application had a hook.
“My goal next year is to get Rochester and Buffalo kids up there so they can experience it as well,” Williams said.
‘We needed to push ourselves’
Austin Lind of Cortland is 13, in seventh grade, and has been swimming for five years. He’s a 50-yard freestyle and breast stroke swimmer.
“My mom was a high school swimmer. I wanted to start swimming to continue the line. I also think it’s a fun sport.”
The workouts were “definitely physical,” he said of Colorado.
“The pool was bigger and longer … We still needed to push ourselves.”
He learned how to improve his freestyle stroke and how to pace himself for the different distances.
Lind said the Olympic training pool was an “amazing facility, with amazing people in it. I got to go with fast swimmers, friends of mine.”
And he wants to train there, himself.
“I want to be an Olympian,” he said.