It’s the last Sunday in June, and the North Austin Aquatic League’s CHAMPS Swim Meet is buzzing at the Micki Krebsbach Swimming Pool in Round Rock.
Competing for the Westover Wild Orcas, 11-year-old Kate Farris has finished her butterfly race and feels great. Butterfly is one of her favorite events. This is the last meet of the season, and Farris is excited to see her hard work pay off and make her coach proud.
“Our team is like a family, and Coach Sandy makes it so fun. She’s really kind and we laugh a lot,” Farris says referring to Sandy Neilson-Bell, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming who is the director of the Orca’s program. “She gets in the water with us and shows us how to do the strokes. If someone needs extra help, she’ll stay late to work with them.”
Neilson-Bell is in good company, considering there is a large number of former Olympic athletes who live in Austin, especially swimmers. Austin seems to be a haven for competitive swimming, with kids beginning the sport at young ages.
More than half of the 9,000 swimmers competing in the South Texas Swimming Local Swimming Committee (LSC) are from Austin, and there’s a good chance that many of these young swimmers will reach impressive accomplishments.
At a college level, the University of Texas swim team has cycled through a fair share of talent, including olympic talent, winning 14 NCAA championships since 1971.
According to Katlyn Anderson, who works at Longhorn Aquatics, a large number of University of Texas swimmers are from Austin. On last year’s roster, nine swimmers went to a local high school. This could be because Austin is home to a large number of youth swimming programs, both summer league and year-round.
While Farris will put away her cap and goggles until next year, there are many other swimmers who opt to advance their training and competition level and compete year-round. Most of these swimmers hope to compete at the collegiate level, and even further, the Olympics.
One of these swimmers, 14-year-old Grace Doyal, has been swimming competitively since she was five. She remembers realizing her passion for the sport at age nine while swimming in her summer league for the Cruisers. Also playing soccer at the time, Doyal chose to focus solely on swimming and has never looked back.
Starting high school next year, she will join the swim team at Westlake High School, where her aunt also swam in the 90s. Her aunt’s coach back then was Steve Jones, who is now Doyal’s coach at Lost Creek Aquatics. He also coached her brother, David, who swam at Trinity University, and her sister, Mary Catherine, who currently swims for Trinity.
Jones would know what it takes to be a great competitor, having coached countless high-performing Austin swimmers for almost 30 years.
“What is special about Gracie is that she works super hard,” Jones says.
Despite setbacks, Doyal gets back in the pool and works to improve. With a low attrition rate in his program, Jones works with many of his athletes from a young age until they graduate from high school. In short, he sees all of the ups and downs, especially when it comes down to one meet.
“I teach them to pick themselves back up — but there are no guarantees,” Jones says.
The sport has become much more competitive, with a focus on core and endurance strength, stretching as a recovery tool and meticulous nutrition, in addition to time in the water. It’s more about creating elite athletes, observes Jones. That takes time and dedication.
Doyal seems to be on the right path, though. During the upcoming school year, she will swim three mornings a week from 5:30-7 a.m., attend school and then return to the pool from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Two days are devoted to dry-land for an hour, and then she spends two more hours in the pool. Her weekends will include more workouts and meets.
Doyal’s discipline also extends to her eating and sleeping habits, as well. She has a cup of coffee, B-12 vitamins and maple water, which is like coconut water, before an early workout. Post workout for breakfast, she’ll usually eat scrambled eggs or gluten-free waffles. She tries to get to sleep by 10 p.m. and wakes up around 8:30 a.m., with the exception of her early-morning workout days when she gets up at 4:45 a.m.
“I have made a lot of friends and it keeps me in shape, and I enjoy racing,” Doyal says. “Even on the days I don’t want to practice, I always feel better when I am done.”
Carolyn Doyal, Grace’s mother, says her daughter seems even more passionate about the sport than her two older siblings who are college swimmers. She is pleased to watch another one of her children commit to swim. She’s witnessed firsthand the benefits this sport provides kids at a young age, as well as at the college level.
“Swimming gives a college student structure to their day. It gives them a group of people they can connect with immediately, which is very helpful in the beginning,” Carolyn says. “I’ve noticed it helps with the transition from high school to college.”
It’s Doyal’s goal to medal in the 100-meter butterfly in high school, and her coach is confident she will achieve this. After that, anything is possible.