The Swimming Knights have seen a dramatic uptick in participation and competition this fall, thanks in part to a new coach, enthusiastic returners and some new partnerships in the community.
Bailey Brandon-Imes, Megan Hogan, Ryan Le and David Hargrave all joined the swim program at Ocoee High at the same time: the fall of 2015.
The program was small then, with about 15 or 16 swimmers coming out at the beginning of the season and about 13 swimmers seeing the season through to the team banquet.
All four swimmers showed promise back then — Brandon-Imes and Hogan as freshmen and Le and Hargrave as sophomores — but the program, overall, was not super competitive. Only one Knight made it through districts to regionals and Ocoee has never had a swimmer advance to state.
Fast-forward two years to this season, and there is a different feel among the “Swimming Knights” — the handle of the team’s new Twitter account. There is a new coach, a whole lot of new swimmers, a new level of competition and — most importantly — a new vision for the program.
“It’s honestly pretty insane,” Hargrave said. “Seeing the program grow like this makes me so happy.”
The new coach is Dan Spellman, and the new swimmers include a whopping 26 underclassmen to pair with 10 upperclassmen. That means the 2015 roster of about 15 swimmers has more than doubled this fall.
And although there are obviously a few logistical challenges with so many swimmers at Ocoee’s practices at the Roper YMCA in Winter Garden, overall, the team’s returners and captains are excited to see such a surge in enthusiasm.
“I love it — it’s just one big family,” Brandon-Imes said. “There are so many more people, so many more personalities — so many more friends, really.”
Brandon-Imes and Hogan were responsible for bringing in many of the team’s newcomers, as was Spellman, who started pounding the pavement after getting the job.
Spellman, a collegiate swimmer at Florida State University who nearly made the U.S. Olympic Team, has a decade of club coaching experience and was formerly the varsity coach at Lake Howell High in Seminole County. There, he similarly saw a program surge from fewer than 10 swimmers to nearly 50.
And, as he tells it, growing participation is about more than just having large numbers for its own sake.
“It’s not just the numbers — it’s about competition in practice and the expression, ‘iron sharpens iron,’” Spellman said. “The biggest thing is developing a culture.”
That culture translates to Spellman scheduling meets with strong programs such as Bishop Moore and Timber Creek early in the season. The Knights did not win those meets, but they performed much better than in years past.
“It’s confidence,” Spellman said. “When you instill the confidence that ‘I can go up against anyone at any time,’ that’s what I want to instill.”
Spellman left his role at Lake Howell to focus on finishing his doctoral degree, but after a year away from the sport, he already had the itch. When his day job in hospitality saw him move to Winter Garden, an opening at Ocoee seemed to be a perfect fit.
When he interviewed, he said the administrators he spoke with expressed a desire to see swimming take off at Ocoee.
“They want to take this program to the next level,” Spellman said. “The administration has done a fantastic job of letting us upgrade our program.”
Those upgrades include moving the team’s home base from the Farnsworth Pool in Winter Garden to the Roper YMCA, where the team also has access to a weight room.
Spellman also has increased the team’s sponsorships and forged partnerships with Rollins College (where he is an adjunct professor), Worldhotels (where he is employed) and AAA, among others.
The kids have taken notice.
“He’s brought in so many sponsorships for this program,” Brandon-Imes said. “He’s just brought in all this positive energy.”
Those sponsorships have helped pay for the relocation to the Roper YMCA, as well as to significantly lower costs for participation, and there are even some gear perks.
“When we first heard about getting fastskins from sponsorships and stuff, we were pretty pumped,” Le said.
More than just providing new incentives, though, Spellman has seemed to connect with his swimmers well and the results have been tangible.
Now, for swimmers who may have club teammates from other area schools with more tradition, Ocoee swimmers feel more comfortable talking up their varsity program.
“We’re dropping seconds, which should take months to do, and we’re doing it in a matter of weeks,” Brandon-Imes said.
Any one swimmer from Ocoee making it to state this summer would be a first, and Spellman is confident about as many as six of his kids having a shot at breaking through that barrier.
Still, with just under two months until districts, he knows there is much preparation and growth to be completed for talented young swimmers such as Christian Guzman,
“You have two races (to get to state) — it’s swim fast or go home,” Spellman said.
Whatever the outcome, though, there is a new energy for the Swimming Knights, and for the program’s veterans it is a welcome change.
“I was always proud (of the program),” Hargrave said. “But now I’m extremely proud of it.”