Decade of Dominance: Pirate Swimming

by Miranda Cloyd

Eleven consecutive men’s Northwest Conference swimming titles, five of the past seven women’s NWC swimming titles, 14 years without a loss in men’s conference dual meets until this year and 44 straight women’s dual conference meet wins. That is only a snapshot of the Whitworth swim team’s success in the past decade.

The Whitworth swim program has been dominant under the direction of head coach Steve Schadt as well as assistant coaches Gary Kessie and Whitney Kessie. Whitney Kessie has been on staff for five years, Gary Kessie for nine years, and Schadt is the veteran with 10 years spent coaching at Whitworth. All three coaches participated in the program as swimmers during their undergraduate careers at Whitworth.

During his time as a swimmer for Whitworth, Schadt contributed to the swim team which earned second place in the NAIA Swimming and Diving Championships. After graduating, Schadt was an assistant coach for swim teams at the University of California, Berkeley, and American University before becoming head coach at Salem International University. Upon his completion of four years at SIU, Schadt returned to Whitworth to coach at his alma mater.

“It’s allowed me to be more empathetic,” Schadt said. “Being an alum of Whitworth, you’re able to walk a mile in the swimmers’ shoes. You have a little more intimate knowledge of what the real challenges are because you did it.”

Schadt coached the team through an especially successful season this year. Although the men’s team lost its first dual meet in 14 years, they broke the all-time record for consecutive conference championships, winning for the 11th year in a row. The women’s team brought their winning streak to 44 dual meets in a row, going undefeated in conference for the sixth year in a row.

Two of Whitworth’s current swimmers, junior Aaron Vaccaro and sophomore Alisa Stang have rapidly achieved success in their few years swimming at Whitworth.

“The thing that is still keeping me swimming is my relationship with my coaches,” Vaccaro said. “Gary and Steve are like family to me. That absolutely makes it worth it, just having that relationship.”

Vaccaro has been setting records at Whitworth since his first season on the team. He holds records in four events, including the 100-free. As a freshman in the 2010-11 season, Vaccaro set records in three events.

Stang also began setting records her freshman year, with the best times in the 50 and 100 free. Stang holds three records for this year: the 50 free, the 100 free and the 100 fly.

“[The coaches] really do believe in every single one of us,” Stang said. “We want to swim well for our coaches. It inspires us.”

While swimming can sometimes be viewed as an individual sport, Whitworth swimmers argue that every swimmer’s dedication and achievement is essential to the success of the team as a whole.

“Every person has to be successful for the whole team to be successful,” Vaccaro said. “Even without gold medal winners, we have a team that can dominate as a whole because of our depth.”

Both teams worked collaboratively to contribute to dual conference meet wins by margins of often more than 100 points this season.

“Your swim counts for more than just you,” Stang said. “That makes a big difference knowing that I’m having a big impact on how the team is doing.”

Swimmers like Stang and Vaccaro are trained through an individual, tri-faceted program run by the three coaches. The program is split into sprinters coached by Gary Kessie, mid-distance coached by Schadt and distance coached by Whitney Kessie.

“We can give a little bit more individualized training within the group,” Gary Kessie said. “It’s allowed us to push to that next level because each athlete is given what they need.”

Athletes are placed in these three groups based on the events they choose to focus on, Schadt says.

“If you want to serve everybody well, you can’t do a cookie-cutter program,” Schadt said. “You have to get pretty individualized and that’s what we do. [The swimmers] all have different needs.”

Swimmers have the freedom to switch to other programs and experiment with their strengths and skills.

“I’m switching to sprint group next year because I realized the events that I want to focus on,” Stang said. “That’s what’s nice about our program; it allows us to specialize in what we’re best at.”

These individualized programs are evidence of the technical methods for success. However, swimmers emphasize the importance of the family aspect of being part of Whitworth’s swim team.

“The most important part of my season this year was building relationships, being part of the team, being there day-in and day-out,” Vaccaro said.

Coaches attribute the team’s long-standing success to the swimmers themselves.

“[It] just comes from the dedicated athletes,” Gary Kessie said. “Everything that [they] do is perfect, as far as stroke technique and being a studious person in the classroom. Everything that we do is geared towards being a better person and being a better athlete.”

Looking ahead to future years, the team is shooting for more than only success within the conference, but also recognition in a national context.

“I’d like to see us making a bigger impact at NCAA’s and the national level,” Schadt said. “Obviously I’d like to keep the conference streak going with winning more conference championships, but I hope to see it get more competitive.”

The Whitworth swim team is currently in the off-season, and swimmers spend the time training on their own or resting before gearing up for the start of the 2013-14 season next fall.

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