When five-year-old Garrett Smith emerged from the bubbles victorious on July 11 it was hard to believe that just weeks ago he’d hardly swam in his life.
Yet he’s one of nearly 150 young swimmers learning to love the sport as a member of the Black Mountain Stingrays swim team.
Smith, having won the first race of his young swimming career, collected his blue ribbon from head coach Beth Dalton the following evening at the Lakeview Center.
“It was great,” Smith said of how it felt to finish first in a heat against Granite Falls. “I was happy.”
Smith was singing a different tune when the season started, according to his mother Kristy.
“He was stubborn,” she said of her son’s early feelings about participating in the sport. “He was really fearful.”
He was also responsive to Dalton, who five years ago revived the old Black Mountain Stingrays team she swam for as a child. She has a way with Garrett, Kristy said.
“I learned most of my life lessons swimming as a kid,” Dalton said. “I wanted to be able to give that back to the community.”
As she does with the kids on the team, which only had 23 members its inaugural season, Dalton figured out what Garrett was comfortable doing and worked with him to improve each practice.
Before that he would often object to going to practice or meets, but Kristy told him if he wouldn't go he would need to tell Dalton himself.
"He wouldn't do that," Kristy said. "He definitely didn't want to let Ms. Beth down, he loves her."
That's likely because Dalton and the two Stingrays assistant coaches, Ryan Lucas and Danny Little, take a simple approach with their swimmers.
"A big aspect of our program, and why I think it's grown so much, is that we hold the kids accountable," she said. "Whatever we start, we finish. It may not be pretty or right, but it's about finishing something."
That philosophy has worked well for Garrett, his mother said.
"I was really worried during the first meet because I knew he couldn't make it all the way across the pool," Kristy said. "He would stop and hold on, stop and hold on. Last night, not only did he win first place in a heat, he never stopped to hold on and finished all of his races."
That confidence, Dalton said, comes from kids understanding what they can accomplish when they set their minds to it.
"It's not about winning at all," she said. "It's about learning confidence and self worth."
Hailey Guthrie, a 15-year-old rising sophomore at Owen High School who has been swimming for Dalton since she formed the Stingrays, agrees.
"Competitive swimming is a completely different thing from the kind of swimming I did as a kid," she said. "That first season I couldn't do freestyle and I had to hold my knows going into the water and that kind of stuff."
Guthrie didn't swim a lot that first season, she said, because she was hesitant to push herself. She wasn't sure she'd come back the following year, but she did.
"I went to more practices and swam in my first meet the second season," she said. "The people around the program, the coaches, parents and swimmers, are so supportive, which motivates you to do better."
Guthrie, who also works for Dalton at the Black Mountain Pool, believes its the coach's ability to make time for everyone that helps the team be successful.
"She gives individual attention to everyone on the team," Guthrie said. "Even if she can't give you feedback right then she'll find you later and help you with your technique or something."
Getting Garrett to be comfortable in the water was "all about compromise," Dalton said.
"You meet them where they are, as far as comfort is concerned," she said. "It was scary for him to go in the deep end so we would work with him in the shallow end until he knew he could make it across."
With a blue ribbon under his belt Garrett was eager to return to practice. Like Guthrie and the other veterans on the team, Garrett is now likely to be a mentor to younger teammates in the future.
"I don't ever want this program to die," Dalton said. "It's up to the kids to build it up and take ownership of it."
She also hopes to create "swimmers for life," which Guthrie said is already happening.
"I really love this sport," she said. "I plan on swimming at Owen next year and it's something I'd like to do forever."
Seeing the results of his hard work has made Garrett a lot more confident, Kristy said, and he'll likely return for his second season next June. But minutes after receiving his first blue ribbon he was mostly focused on the progress he's made so far.
"I'm a better swimmer now," Garrett said.