Like the hard-charging young swimmer on the last leg of their 200 metre race, the Nickel City Aquatics are beginning to close ground on the field, perhaps more quickly than many might have expected.
While the bulk of the credit for the across the board improvements should be doled out to the athletes themselves, it's no coincidence that this sudden surge is occurring about six months following the arrival of new club head swim coach, Laura Harvey.
Though the GTA native has cut her teeth in the swimming profession at various outposts in the land, the irony is that hers is not a story of a swimmer turned coach. "I was a competitive gymnast, training 25 hours a week or more, so I know what it's like to be fully dedicated to a sport," she said, recalling her days of elite sporting involvement, a few decades ago.
"I started small, as a recreational coach, and I had a very steep learning curve, but it really took off for me - and I really enjoyed it," added Harvey. "You would be surprised at how much of an overlap there is between gymnastics and swimming. Gymnastics is an incredible cross-training sport for basically every other sport."
"When I get a gymnast in the pool, I know it right away. They know their bodies, they know how to move."
Like pretty much every good coach that exists, Harvey feels comfortable working with the entire spectrum of swimming talent that exists at NCA. That said, she also acknowledges a strong sense of exactly why she was selected to this role, with no previous connection to northern Ontario.
"I think that NCA has a fairly solid base right now," she explained. "There are good numbers, there's a good solid foundation here. But I've had some success in working with provincial champions; I've had some national finalists. I think, when I was hired, it was to give the club a little bit more of that high performance aspect."
That can be challenging, given that it's not as though Harvey and company start with a completely clean slate. "When I look at the club as a whole, I tend to look more long-term," she said. "You look at the younger kids and start to think about how to develop that aspect of the club."
"But I also have a really great group of senior athletes that were ready to go, ready to take off, and the amount that they've improved in such a short time is pretty surprising. They want to work hard, they want to get there, and their success has really motivated them to keep pushing to a higher level."
Exhibit A: Keegan Lepage.
"I've had some major improvements over the past couple of weeks," said Lepage. "Within just a few weeks, I've dropped three seconds in my 100m free."
That might not be all that terribly unusual for a relatively new swimmer. But for a 14 year old with roughly eight years of competitive swimming to his credit, that kind of sudden progress is noteworthy.
"I think it's the higher intensity workouts that we do," he stated. "We are doing a lot more hard training." And then there's the whole benefit that comes from simply having a new set of eyes, ones that are acutely trained to look for potential tweaks that translate to faster times, and what they can bring to the mix.
"She (Harvey) has helped make my stroke more efficient and longer, to get the best pull and make me go faster," he said. "She's helped me with my kicking and my "under waters", because I'm not really good at that right now."
Even his primary stroke focus has changed, as the new coach works to see where the greatest potential lies for Lepage and his teammates. "I was a breaststroker before this year, and I kind of still am, but my freestyle has really been on point the past couple of meets."
"We're looking to maybe having me go with the IM (individual medley), so we are focusing lately on the fly and the backstroke, because those are my two weakest strokes."
A little more than one full year younger than Lepage, Shane Clapham is still at that stage of his career where multi-stroke training takes precedence, apparently for very good reason. "Different strokes use different muscles, so training all of the strokes builds all of your muscles together," said the youngest of three swimming brothers, following in the footsteps of both Josh (20) and Matt (15).
"Eventually, once you get really good at one of the strokes, you can focus on that." Celebrating his 13th birthday on the same weekend that he competed at the Youth Cup in Scarborough earlier this month, Clapham believes he is just starting to scratch the surface of where his talent might take him.
"So far, this year has been really good, and I think I'm going to grow a lot, because I just turned 13," he said. "I'm probably going to start sprouting up. The hardest thing to adjust to, while you are growing, is that you feel tired all the time. When you are in the pool, you don't feel that you are doing that well. But then later, it obviously pays off, because you're taller and stronger."
And, like Lepage, more technically proficient.
"Before, I wasn't shooting forward enough in the breaststroke, I was just going up," stated Clapham. "Shooting forward helped me take off a lot of time at once." And in the end, this is the type of individualized progress that is music to the ears of coach Harvey.
"As long as an athlete has the opportunity to reach their full potential, then I'm happy," she said. "The fact is that there are swimmers that come into a club and are simply not interested in going to that (elite) level. It takes a huge amount of commitment, it's a lot of life that you are dedicating to this sport, and not everybody wants to do that."
"One of my main objectives at this club is to create a positive environment for each of those groups, so that everybody feels that they are getting what they want from their swimming."