Black Mountain Stingrays are making big waves in the pool
In the summer of 2013 the return of a competitive swim team made a splash at the Black Mountain pool.
Six years later, the Stingrays are making big waves.
Beth Dalton grew up swimming in the Tarheel Swim League as a member of the McDowell team. Among the teams she competed against as a youth was the Black Mountain Stingrays.
"I remember the team being around when I was young and then it was gone for a few years," she said. "I wanted to bring it back because I knew this was a program that would fill a need in the community."
In its first season, the current iteration of the Stingrays attracted around 23 children ages 6 - 14. By the following season, when the Tarheel Swim League voted to approve the team's membership, that number had more than doubled.
Today the Black Mountain roster includes more than 160 swimmers. Several factors have contributed to that growth, Dalton said.
"I think one of the biggest things that brings more and more kids to the team is the consistency of expectations," she said. "It's also a fun environment. We have certain expectations and responsibilities for our swimmers and parents as well, and really promote a family environment."
That culture can feel different than other sports, said Dalton, who also manages the Black Mountain pool.
"Not everybody gets a trophy in our sport,so if you want to earn something in our sport you have to work for it," she said. "Unlike other sports there is no score on the board at the end of the game to define whether the kids are successful. So that's not our focus, because that's not how life works. At the end of the day, when I go home there is no scoreboard that tells me if I beat somebody that day."
Dalton and coaches Danny Little and Ryan Lucas place a premium on personal accountability.
"It's all about effort," Dalton said. "Either you give your best effort or you don't, and if you give 110 percent, then that's what determines if you're a success."
Of course, with swimmers ranging from age 5 - 18, the goals for each athlete are different.
"The kids are all here for different reasons," Dalton said. "Some are here because they want to socialize, some are here because their parents wanted them to try it and some are here because they love the sport and want to compete."
Jacob Allen was new to competitive swimming when he joined the Stingrays in 2014.
"My first time swimming competitively I was on the school team," said Allen, a graduate of Carolina Day School who committed in May to swim at Davis & Elkins College. "I was really out of shape and I signed up for the summer league and at the time I could barely dive off the blocks."
Dalton said Allen was timid when he started, "but he really had a heart for swimming."
"It took some coaxing," she said. "Every kid is different and there are different tactics you can use. We tried several approaches with Jacob and he really developed a love for the sport."
Allen became a year-round swimmer with the Smoky Mountain Aquatic Club under Charlie McCanless and began focusing on strengthening his technique.
"I had struggled with weight my entire life, and it was a thing I was conscious of when I was little," he said. "I wanted to get in shape and for a long time I wasn't sure how, so swimming really helped me with that."
As he continued to improve, Allen began working with the younger swimmers on the Stingrays.
"This team helped me improve in a lot of ways," he said. "It improved my fundamentals but because I was a little older I was asked to help coach some, and when you help others with their swimming it's easier to improve yourself."
Allen was a captain on the Carolina Day swim team as a junior and senior and earned All-WNC honors in his final season for the program. He is the first member of the Stingrays to swim at the collegiate level.
"We are so proud of Jacob," Dalton said. "He had a goal to swim in college and our goal was to help him achieve his goal."
Allen will likely not be the last Stingrays product to swim at the next level, she added.
"We have a few more that are working toward that goal right now," Dalton said. "We have a few that swim for (Owen High School) and we have a couple who are currently swimming at Carolina Day."
Seeing those older swimmers chase their dreams has a profound impact on the newcomers to the sport.
"Our little kids idolize our bigger swimmers," Dalton said. "They see what they're able to accomplish and that makes them want to work even harder."
However, it's the relationships that are formed during long swim meets and practices that the children will take with them long after their swimming careers are over.
"I still keep in touch with the people I used to compete against when I was swimming," Dalton said. "I might not remember how I did in a certain meet against a certain team, but I remember playing cards between meets with my friends and all of the other fun we had."
It's that atmosphere that keeps the kids coming back year after year.
"We endure our practices because they can be monotonous and not that fun, just so we can live for the meets," Dalton said. "That's what all of the kids look forward to."
One home meet will be particularly memorable this year for members of the Stingrays, who will host the conference championship on Saturday, July 27.
"That will be the first time we've hosted the conference meet," Dalton said. "We have five teams and 500 swimmers coming out that day."
As the Stingrays roster continues to grow, Dalton has no plans to cap the number of members on the team.
"This whole program has been received so positively by the community and been given so much support, I want as many children as possible to be able to experience," she said. "We're teaching these kids so much more than swimming; we're working on teaching them lessons they can carry with them for the rest of their lives."