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Swimming: Togetherness keeps the Stingrays swim team going strong

WORTHINGTON -- Being on a YMCA swim team is like being part of one big family. Think about it. When young athletes join the local basketball or football teams, they participate within their own age group. Yes, football players often describe them...

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Tim Middagh/Daily Globe Worthington Stingrays member Jackson Bonnett swims laps in practice at the YMCA pool.

WORTHINGTON -- Being on a YMCA swim team is like being part of one big family.

Think about it. When young athletes join the local basketball or football teams, they participate within their own age group.

Yes, football players often describe themselves as being part of a “family.” But think of your own family. If you have younger brothers or sisters, or older ones, that’s your real-life family.

The Worthington Stingrays swim team sort of feels like that, too.

The 2016-17 Stingrays feature 55 swimmers between the ages of 6 and 18. The head coach, Donna Damm, has logged more than 20 years with the program. Don’t look upon her the way you would any normal coach -- she’s a combination mentor, baby-sitter and den mother -- and she’s not ready to hang it up yet.

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“I love the kids. I love to be involved with the kids,” she said this week in her little YMCA office while one of her brood, high school junior Jamie Newman, studied out of a schoolbook before practice began.

“It’s going to be hard to leave the team in the hands of someone I don’t trust. I’ll have to find the right person … I kind of feel like they’re my team. And I can’t turn my children over to somebody I don’t trust,” Damm said.

Think Donna’s just a little protective of her “family”?

Well, so what? Her swimmers are protective, too.

Newman, who is in her sixth year with the program, loves the fact that as many as 12 years can separate the “freshmen” from the “seniors.”

“First of all, we have such a large age gap. The younger ones look up to the older ones and just think they’re so awesome. They bond together, the kids that have been here a long time. And that’s pretty neat.”

Learning never stops Newman joined the team a little later than many others do. She was in the sixth grade when a friend convinced her to come on board.

“I didn’t think that I’d be any good at all,” she recalls today.

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She was surprised at how much work is actually required to become a successful racer. You’ve got to learn timing with your strokes. You’ve got to learn to breathe all over again. There are the flip turns, the building up of lung strength.

Diving, said Newman, “is one of the hardest things. Learning the dive is easy. But getting a good dive takes a lot of work. I’m still learning.”

Both Newman and another Stingray veteran, Blaine Doeden, say that among the many reasons they continue to participate in YMCA swimming is the camaraderie it encourages.

“Recently I’ve started to mentor some of the younger kids. And it’s been quite a transformation for me to see when I was a younger, inexperienced, swimmer and now I’m helping the other kids,” Doeden said.

“I’ve made some of my best friends in it,” testified Newman. “It’s very easy to start it and get into that routine. Everybody is so supportive. There’s nobody who doesn’t get along. And you can come from anywhere. You don’t have to live in Worthington.”

The supportive aspect also includes volunteers, including parents. It takes a lot of people to run a swim meet involving more than a hundred actual swimmers. Starters, timers, stat keepers, schedulers, drivers, concession workers -- swimming isn’t just a family, it’s an extended family.

“It is both a team sport and an individual sport. I don’t have a lot of friends in my age group, so I get to cheer on other kids outside my age group,” Newman said. “When (the little ones) start out, there are times when I just want to jump in and pull them out of there. There are kids who I can remember barely being able to swim 25 yards, and here they are swimming 500 yards at a time.”

Goals to reach Not only do the swimmers’ abilities evolve, but many other things have changed regarding the Stingrays program generally. Damm was a coach when the Worthington Area YMCA was located in an old building downtown, and not everyone felt comfortable in the smaller, structurally-challenged pool.

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“I used to tell the kids, ‘If you hear a loud crack, swim toward the edge,’” Damm recalls today.

This year at the larger pool at the new location next to Minnesota West Community and Technical College on the west side of town, the 2016-17 Stingrays continue working at bettering their times and qualifying for regional competition. Damm says times have been steadily improving and she still gets a kick out of coaching.

“They’re fun. They’re entertaining,” she describes her athletes.

Perhaps no one would describe Damm as a hard-charging kind of coach. She doesn’t come down on her swimmers if they’re a little late for practice. “If they’re late, it’s usually not their fault. Because most of them, they don’t drive,” she points out.

She’s an encourager. But she won’t admit to being easy-going all the time.

“If they’re not listening to me, they’ll know. They’ll get a little longer warm-up,” she explains.

When they talk too much during the pre-practice session, they’ll also know.

“When someone talks too much, I figure the best place for their mouth is down in the water,” she explains again.

Damm, though, is her swimmers’ biggest fan. She’s proud to point out that her competitors are not just good swimmers, but they’re “multi-talented” and involved in a lot more activities than just swimming.

Being goal-oriented is very much a Stingrays kind of thing.

“You’re always setting new goals,” said Doeden. “It’s always fun year to year to keep coming back to the sport and keep building on the previous year.”


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Tim Middagh/Daily Globe These veteran Worthington Stingrays veteran swimmers (front row from left) Isaac Schrieber, Jackson Bonnett, Jacob Mills, Hailey Cauwels, (back) Gerrit Bos, Blaine Doeden, Anwar Fara and Jamie Newman lead the team this winter.

Doug Wolter joined the Worthington Globe in December of 1983 as a sports reporter. He later became sports editor, and then news editor and managing editor. In 2006 he moved to Mankato with his wife, Sandy, and served as an editor at the Mankato Free Press. In 2013 he and Sandy returned to Worthington to take up the job of sports editor at The Globe, and they have been in Worthington since.

Doug can be reached at dwolter@dglobe.com.
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