For 33 years, the North Whidbey Aquatic Club survived a bookkeeping scandal, coaches being fired, a coach who was later convicted of molestation and a period when the squad went through four coaches in five months. It could not survived the budget ax.
The North Whidbey Parks and Recreation Board voted in June to stop funding the club as a cost-cutting measure. NWAC held its final practice Thursday.
A few swimmers will continue to train on their own for major meets later this summer; for most, their club affiliation will end with the Pacific Northwest Swimming 14-and-under Long Course Championships this weekend in Federal Way.
For many of the team members, the club was more than a place to learn the proper technique of a swim stroke.
They said NWAC provided a family atmosphere, taught life lessons and opened up other opportunities.
Jillian Pape, 17, and Caitlyn Dennen, 14, have each been with the club for nine years.
“It has given me so much, and I want the other kids to have the opportunities that swimming has given me,” Pape said. “The younger generation will be hurt by this.”
She also noted that the loss of the club will impact the high school program, saying most of the state qualifiers each year were products of NWAC.
“It’s hard to believe that this team that I have put so much hard work into is going to be dissolved because of issues that could have been negotiated,” Dennen said.
She added that there are other swim teams and other sports but “nothing can replace what I have here.”
“I’m very upset,” Jasmine Borja, 12, said. “I’m heartbroken, sad.”
“I definitely developed friendships that will last forever,” Pape said.
“This is like my second family,” Dennen added.
Lindsay Brown, 11, echoed those sentiments, “I formed the best friendships I have ever had.”
For Kyle Coonan, 15, swimming is “the only sport for me on the island,” adding, “I love my team, I love my coach.”
In addition to missing the sport, Coonan said he will miss the two-hour break swimming provides from the stresses of life.
The club members said that being part of NWAC improved their work ethic, determination, commitment and time management.
“It teaches you a lot of discipline, how to control your time, gives you more confidence, and it also gives you a good workout,” Borja said.
Brown said she “worked harder” in swimming than any other activity, which helped her in other aspects of her life.
“In school, because of swimming, you know you can push through the tough times; you know you can finish,” she said.
Pape gets up at 4:30 a.m. three times a week to supplement her daily afternoon workouts.
“That determination and drive helps with school,” she said.
Swimming will help pay for Pape’s college education. The high school senior-to-be has been offered scholarships from several colleges and it is just a matter of which school she chooses to attend.
Coonan would like to attend the U.S. Naval Academy.
“I was hoping swimming would help get me there,” he said. With the club dissolving, he is not sure he will be able to go to another city to continue with the sport.
“I have three younger siblings and they all have their own activities, so it will be difficult to travel around,” he said.
Anacortes and Bellingham each have swimming clubs, and some of the NWAC members may hit the road to stay active in the sport.
“Swimming is basically my life,” said Brown, who is one of the region’s top swimmers and owns a nationally-ranked time. “I will have to travel to somewhere else. We might actually move.”
Dan Brown, Lindsay Brown’s father, said he is concerned for the kids who won’t be able to leave the island.
“This community is going to suffer; the kids that can’t find an alternative are going to suffer,” he said. “This weakens the community. It reduces the number of options for young athletes, and it is bad policy to do so.”
According to Brown, the NWAC booster club is “going full bore” to form a private swim team to “keep these kids in this pool.”
Dick Taylor became the NWAC head coach Jan. 2, 2015.
He took over a struggling club of “maybe 20” swimmers and lifted enrollment to four dozen.
He is proud of what he and his team have accomplished.
“We stabilized a declining team,” he said. “No, we stabilized a blown-up team.”
Taylor developed several swimmers who rank among the nation’s best, and the team, as a whole, has shown constant improvement.
“Our program, in all events in 2016, is over 200 percent the national average in the rate of improvement,” he said.
Taylor added that the club members “gain real self-esteem the old fashioned way, setting lofty goals and achieving them with hard work.”
In regard to the effort to form a private club, Taylor said, it “may even be to the team’s financial benefit.”