The Greater Spokane League girls swimming teams are making a splash this year – and not just in the pool.
Swimming might be an underappreciated sport, with many outside the discipline paying attention only during the Olympics, but participation in Washington high schools has grown since the pandemic. The three GSL schools that field teams in swimming – Cheney, Pullman and Clarkston – have all seen an increase in team numbers for this season.
According to Pullman coach Eric Chung, Washington is on par with other swimming powerhouse states such as California or Texas.
Cheney has a unique co-op with four other area schools, in which swimmers train and travel with the Blackhawks but represent their own schools at meets. Lewis and Clark has four swimmers and Medical Lake two. East Valley and St. John-Endicott have one apiece.
Growing up quickly
Prior to the pandemic, Cheney coach Jennifer Hochwalt’s team averaged 35-40 swimmers. This year, the Blackhawks have 14 athletes, a rise from the past couple of seasons.
“We’re just trying to rebuild the team to the numbers that we have,” Hochwalt said.
Looking ahead to upcoming seasons, Hochwalt plans on reaching out to junior high students and incoming freshmen to boost the program to prepandemic numbers.
“We do it mostly by word of mouth,” Hochwalt said.
Despite lower numbers, the team shows promise this season.
Junior Lauren Howe is an athlete to watch. Her best events are the 50- and 100-yard freestyle. Hochwalt is also excited about Madi Bauman and Jezelle Schmidt . As freshmen, both are finding their niche under Hochwalt’s guidance.
“I think (they) will do really well this year as far as just the Cheney team is concerned,” Hochwalt said.
Citing East Valley’s Brigid Dinnen, who went to state and took home first in the 200 freestyle and 100 backstroke last season as a freshman, Hochwalt is encouraged by her young team in the pool.
“We have a lot of really talented swimmers in this side of the state,” Hochwalt said.
Coached by 2022 GSL Coach of the Year Chung, Pullman has seen a large increase in participation since last season.
“We actually got a lot of new swimmers, so our team size has grown significantly,” Chung said. “We had 22 swimmers last year and we’re currently sitting at 28.”
Some of his new athletes had prior experience and wanted to try swimming competitively. But several novices came out. The bulk of the team returned from last season to continue building off their accomplishments.
“We have a really, really cool environment in which our older swimmers are able to kind of peer coach and provide guidance to these younger swimmers to help them get acclimated to the competitive swimming environment,” Chung said.
A COVID-19 outbreak last season triggered exercise-induced asthma for some of the team members, and they have worked hard on gaining back their aerobic fitness.
“Being able to mentally stay healthy, as well as physically healthy, are obviously the most critical (lessons),” Chung said.
This season, Chung is excited for the new swimmers to engage more with the sport and learn from the more experienced swimmers – specifically the Edge sisters.
Poppy Edge, a senior, and Hazel Edge, a freshman, have been swimming in club since they were youngsters. The transition to the high school team was an easy decision.
“Most of the people that do club take those couple months off and do the high school season,” Poppy said. “So, it’s fun to be with your friends that you’re with the rest of the year as well.”
This season is special to the sisters as it is the first, and perhaps only, time they get to swim together at meets.
“Whenever we’re swimming (club) meets, there’s age groups, so we’re never allowed to swim in the same events at the same time or be in the same relays,” Hazel said. “Now that we’re in high school, there’s no age limit, so Poppy and I often get a race (where) we get to be in the same relays which I think is super fun.”
Both girls are looking forward to state, but Hazel is especially looking forward to districts since they will be using the pool she uses for club.
“I think my times will get a lot better when I swim there,” Hazel said. “So I’m really excited for that.”
Chung does not think swimming has lost interest in Washington. The athletes he coaches and competes against are proof of that.
“Just looking at Cheney High School and Clarkson High School, they have a number of very formidable athletes,” Chung said. “We compete against them multiple times a season and they always give us exciting competitive meets.”
Chung is concerned that people only pay attention to swimming once every four years during the Olympics, but he sees Washington as a strong state for the sport.
“There have been a huge number of Olympians and very, very strong athletes that have come out of the state of Washington,” Chung said. “I would say pretty on par with some of the other major powerhouses like California, Florida, North Carolina (and) Texas.”
Clarkston, under the direction of coach Savannah Kaschmitter, has 12 swimmers this season – and no seniors. She said it’s not a problem attracting athletes, but rather retaining them though their senior years.
“I think they kind of get really busy,” Kaschmitter said, citing how the team’s lone senior left the team due to taking college classes. “I’ve been starting to see that a little bit with that ‘jump-start’ program. It’s like seniors are now college students and they don’t want to swim anymore.”
One of the team’s juniors, Makayla Doughtery, has stepped into a leadership role as team captain.
“She’s also grown up in the club domain, so she’s a lot more familiar with the (swim) world,” Kaschmitter said.
Doughtery, 16, started swimming with her grandfather in the aquatic center before taking swim lessons and transitioning to the Neptunes club team. From there, it was an easy decision to join Clarkston’s team when she reached high school.
As the team captain, Doughtery is responsible for ensuring punctuality at practice – and that teammates are having fun and staying positive.
“I thought that doing (swim) for so many years … that I was ready to be able to help,” Doughtery said. “I like being able to help others and tell them how to do things.”
Freshman Hallie Mackleit competes in all the events but specializes in the 100 breast and 200 individual medley. Kaschmitter said Mackleit works hard, sets a good example to others and encourages her teammates.
“I try to be as positive as I can,” Mackleit said. “I don’t want to put anybody down.”
As the girls put in their time at the Asotin County Family Aquatic Center, there are a few goals the entire team is working toward, the primary of which is making it to state.
“Usually, I only have a girl or to two qualify in an individual event, but this year I actually have two relays that look really strong,” Kaschmitter said. “This is the first year I’ve had really strong swimmers to fill up two relays. I’m pretty excited to see how they do.”
Notable swimmers from Spokane
There have been 18 swimmers from Washington to compete in the Olympics, including four from the Spokane area.
Tom Blankenburg competed in the 1928 Amsterdam games, Mary Lou Petty in the 1936 Berlin games, David Radcliff in Melbourne in 1956 and Tom McBreen in the 1972 Munich games.
More recently, Daniel Roy – who swam for King Aquatic Club of Federal Way while attending Gonzaga Prep – competed for Stanford from 2018-19 through the 2021-22 season. He was a five-time All-American and owns the school record in the 200 breast.
Roy has indicated he’ll attempt to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team trials at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis next year.