Windermere Laker Aquatics makes a splash in swimming scene
The origin of Windermere Laker Aquatics, a new year-round swim club based out of Windermere Prep, came from an observation.
The administration at Windermere Prep, from Headmaster Tom Marcy to Athletic Director Jacob Doss, had noticed that the school’s on-campus pool wasn’t getting the usage one would hope for from a facility of its caliber.
So, an exploratory board of parents was formed to look into the feasibility of a year-round swim club, something many had lobbied for previously and something that other prep schools with swimming facilities tend to have.
“A group of parents got together, created a business plan and rolled out Windermere Laker Aquatics,” said Greg Bitel, a member of the WLA’s current board of directors.
From that exploratory board, Windermere Laker Aquatics — USA Swimming-certified club — officially opened Aug. 12. The club is affiliated with the school and uses the same mascot and team name as WPS: the water dragon and the Lakers.
“We tried to pattern our club after the culture of Windermere Prep — a low swimmer-to-coach ratio,” Bitel said. “We’re trying to create an elite program. We’re not looking at big volume. … We’re looking at a smaller group that wants to excel — we expect a lot from our swimmers and from our parents.”
Together, the WLA board and Windermere Prep brought in Alex Dehner to be the program’s first coach, serving dually as head coach of WLA and of the Windermere Prep varsity swimming team.
At 23, Dehner is a young head coach, but the former swimmer at the University of Florida has impressed his new boss.
“(Alex) came in and fit in almost immediately with the rest of the coaches at Windermere Prep,” Doss said. “He’s a younger guy, but he’s wise beyond his years. He’s mature in that he sees success the old-fashioned way — Alex sees it as having to put in some time and be patient.”
Dehner was a standout swimmer for the Gators until doctors discovered he had bilateral blood clots in each of his lungs. While he waited to get cleared to return to the pool for UF — something that unfortunately did not happen — he began his coaching career.
With his own competitive career behind him, the Tallahassee native is dedicated to building something special at Windermere Prep.
“The opportunity here, at Windermere Prep, is kind of every coach’s dream — to have an up-and-coming institution that backs its swim team,” Dehner said. “To have a program that is funded and really supported, is what really enticed me to come down. I saw the vision.”
That vision extends beyond Dehner and to his staff of five coaches. He said the school’s support allowed him to pursue top-notch coaches, including former Olympians Gemma Spofforth and Anna Pold.
After a strong showing for the varsity team during the fall season, the new club appears to have it sea legs after a strong performance at the Florida Age Group Championships in February. WLA took 24 swimmers to the event and placed fifth out of 58 teams — an impressive feat for a new club.
Additionally, the Lakers set three FLAG records — two in relay races (400 yard medley relay; 400 yard freestyle relay) and Addison Reese set an individual FLAG record in the 200-yard IM. Gavin Van Kersbergen, 10, won the high-point award for 10-and-under boys at the meet.
From the success of that meet, seven Laker swimmers were selected to compete in a Florida All-Stars competition: Reese, Van Kersbergen, Brooke Larweth, Gaby Tong, Peyton Powell, Hayley Clark and Rory Connelly.
The early success has motivated the club’s coach.
“We’re building a culture and building something brand-new,” Dehner said. “I still get chills every time that they dive in for their races.”
Looking forward, WLA sees growth in its future. The club already has grown from 35 swimmers to 90 in less than a year’s time. Originally intended solely for Windermere Prep students, a swell of interest led to WLA accepting students from all schools.
The club was a volunteer host club for the NCSA Championships at the I-Drive YMCA Aquatic Center recently, and will partner with the Mac Crutchfield Foundation to host a swim clinic in April that will feature several Olympians, including Ryan Lochte.
Collectively, the club is carving out an identity amongst its swimmers and parents.
“It’s come together as a community, and it’s really nice to see,” Bitel said.
And as for that pool on Windermere Prep’s campus? It’s getting plenty of action these days.
“Our pool is constantly being used,” Doss said. “You’ll never walk by our pool and not see it packed with swimmers.”