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The synchronized rumblings of swimmers in the water drown out Bruce Gemmell’s distinct raspy voice, which has become perpetually hoarse from decades of coaching. He roams the deck at Georgetown Preparatory School’s indoor pool and shouts instructions anyway.
“Everyone goes twice!”
On this Friday evening in January, Gemmell is leading his most advanced group at the Nation’s Capital Swim Club (NCAP), one of the country’s largest and most accomplished swim programs. Below him in the water are some of the top high school swimmers in the country. Five of them—Paige McKenna, Noah Rutberg, Eleanor Sun, Chase Travis, and Gemmell’s daughter, Erin—have qualified to swim in the Olympic Team Trials this June in Omaha, Nebraska.
They’re the latest in a long and rich line of elite D.C. area swimmers that includes 2016 Olympic gold medalists Katie Ledecky and Jack Conger, and before them, athletes like 2012 Olympian Kate Ziegler, 1996 Olympic gold medalist Mark Henderson, two-time Olympic champion Tom Dolan, and former world record holder Mike Barrowman.
The D.C. region is filled with elite clubs. Club swimmers in the area swim under Potomac Valley Swimming (PVS), the local swimming committee that covers D.C., parts of Maryland, and Northern Virginia. While its geographic area is the smallest of USA Swimming’s 59 local swimming committees, PVS represents one of the largest groups of total swimmers in USA Swimming with approximately 12,000 athletes. As of Jan. 7, 26 PVS athletes have qualified for the Olympic Trials, according to the swimming website Reach For the Wall.
“You want to know why there’s a preponderance of talented swimmers in the area? This is going on everywhere in the DMV right now. And in similar fashion,” Gemmell explains while pacing around the Georgetown Prep pool deck. “The question is why?”
Torri Huske pauses several times before answering questions. The 17-year-old Yorktown High School junior is one of the best swimmers in the country. In December, she won the 100-meter butterfly event at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, edging out professional swimmer Kelsi Dahlia and setting a meet record in the process. But media interviews are not in her comfort zone. Huske is still getting used to the attention.
“I usually don’t really like to tell people much,” she says.
Huske may need to prepare for this part of being an elite swimmer. The Arlington resident has qualified for six events at the Olympic Trials (100-meter butterfly, 100-meter freestyle, 200-meter butterfly, 200-meter freestyle, 200-meter individual medley, and 50-meter freestyle), and has a “really good” chance of making the Olympic team, according to her club coach, Evan Stiles of the Arlington Aquatic Club (AAC). The top two finishers in each individual event will qualify for the Olympics.
“If she can get into the final heat as top eight and it’s just one race, she’s gonna throw it down,” Stiles predicts.
But Stiles considers Huske an “anomaly” in several ways. Unlike many of her peers, Huske did not grow up swimming for a local community pool during the summer. She also chose to stay with the smaller Arlington Aquatic Club, which has around 550 swimmers on its team, instead of joining the larger NCAP, a club that consists of about 1,800 athletes spread across 14 locations, or the Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club (RMSC), which trains more than 1,700 swimmers at five sites.
The popularity and reach of summer swim leagues can explain why the D.C. area produces so many talented swimmers. Fifty to 60 years ago, many local communities, mainly located in the affluent suburbs of Montgomery County, Maryland and northern Virginia, established neighborhood pool clubs and started leagues.
Tens of thousands of local athletes swim for their community pool teams during the summer, including the biggest names in the sport. Ledecky started her swimming career in the Montgomery County Swim League (MCSL). So did Conger. Both treasured their time in summer league, and credit it for piquing their interest in the sport.
“That’s kind of my story,” Ledecky says. “I started in summer league, joined a year-round team [in NCAP] … I continued to love the sport through all of it. I had some really great coaches and teammates that helped me get to where I am today. A number of these young swimmers have similar stories of starting out in the sport from a young age in summer league and working their way up to Olympic Trials.”
And as much as some club coaches complain that there isn’t enough pool space because of the high demand, the reality is that the number of year-round pools in the area makes it likely that those interested will find somewhere to train, says Gemmell, who coached Ledecky at NCAP. The variety of options also helps. That’s something he noticed when he moved from Delaware to coach NCAP in 2012.
In addition to NCAP, RMSC, and AAC, other elite swim clubs, including FISH in McLean and Machine Aquatics in Vienna, fall under the PVS umbrella.
“The pools in Delaware are quite limited,” Gemmell says. “If you want to swim year-round, you swim for this club, and if that doesn’t fit your needs—geographic, philosophy, schedule, or something else—too bad. That’s your choice. You can either have blueberry pie or blueberry pie, and that’s it. When you come down here, you can have blueberry, you can have strawberry, you can have chocolate, you can have lemon meringue, and they’re all geographically, if not convenient, at least reasonable.”
What Huske does have in common with her peers is being inspired and pushed by area talents. She remembers seeing a photo signed by Ledecky hanging on the wall at a local pool and being in awe.
The two now swim at some of the same meets and Huske has gotten to know the five-time Olympic gold medalist.
“I think she’s definitely helped to spark the interest of kids,” Huske says. “I think she just helps to draw more attention to the sport and make it more well known. Especially when you’re from the area, people are going to talk about her.”
Ledecky attended Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda and served as Phoebe Bacon’s “big buddy” while they were in school together. Bacon, who swims for NCAP, has committed to the University of Wisconsin and qualified for four events (100-meter backstroke, 100-meter butterfly, 200-meter backstroke, and 200-meter individual medley) at the Olympic Trials.
She recalls going to local meets to watch Ledecky swim.
“I wanted to be there, in a sense, to witness history,” Bacon says.
Her mom, Philippa, would also keep her updated on Conger’s achievements. Because he was from the area, it was easy for Bacon to look up to him.
Conger himself had the same experience and remembers looking up to the local elite swimmers that came before him. When he was 10, Conger broke a summer league 25-meter butterfly age group record at his community pool: “My coach was like did you know whose record you broke?”
It belonged to Michael Raab, an all-American swimmer at the University of Virginia who nearly qualified for the Olympic team in 2004.
“That kind of opened my eyes. ‘Wow, if I’m beating him at a very young age, maybe this whole Olympic thing is possible if I stay on this track,’” Conger says.
The competitive culture of the D.C. area swimming community makes all the difference, says Travis, one of the swimmers in Gemmell’s group.
Travis started her swimming career in Delaware and moved to Maryland when she was 13 to swim for Gemmell at NCAP. She says she looked at a few places in Pennsylvania, but as a distance specialist she wanted to train with the coach who guided Ledecky, one of the sport’s best distance swimmers.
When Travis travels, she notices that not all swimmers are as motivated as her peers in NCAP. Travis has qualified to swim the 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1,500-meter freestyle events at this year’s Olympic Trials.
“Here, you walk into practice in the morning and like people are ready to swim fast,” she explains. “[When] we’re at other places, people show up like 30 seconds before practice starts and don’t want to do anything.”
Gemmell “expects us to be great,” adds Rutberg, an NCAP swimmer who has qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 200-meter backstroke. “He doesn’t ask us, he kind of just expects us. And I think that’s a great culture to have because he wants you to get better, but he also wants you to want to get better.”
The D.C. area is now known for its highly regarded coaches as well as its elite swimmers.
“I think people dismiss the important aspect of coaching,” Conger says. “I think that’s something that’s very—I don’t know if it’s a desire to be coaching in that specific area, but there are a lot of amazing coaches in that specific area. They should have their credit as well. It’s not just the athletes, but the coaches putting in the hard work.”
Conger, 25, now lives in Charlottesville and trains with Cavalier Aquatics. But he’s chosen to represent both the University of Virginia’s post-grad program and NCAP during meets. His former RMSC coach, Sue Chen, now coaches with NCAP.
“It’s something I’ve done without a doubt or hesitation,” Conger says. “Just a little bit of a way to give back, give credit where credit is due.”
Toward the end of practice at Georgetown Prep, Gemmell has his swimmers compete in a relay race while swimming their strokes backwards, finishing feet first. “This is for them to have some fun,” Gemmell says.
Fun for these young athletes means training with the best athletes in the country. It means improving and having the potential to one day swim in the Olympics.
Their swimming heroes swam in the same pools before them. They know what’s possible here.
“It’s just being exposed to really fast swimming,” Conger says. “Just being exposed to what you can really try and do.”