Young coaches abound in summer swim league

Photo by Brandon Brigman

Photo by Brandon Brigman

The whispers from opposing parents last season made it to the ears of Carly Egan, then a first-time head coach of the River Oak Rapids.

"Could they not find a coach other than a 16-year-old?" the fan questioned.

Egan couldn't really hide her youth -- she turned 17 during the latter stages of the 2009 season -- but she didn't let the doubts about her age get to her. Though she was barely old enough to drive a car, she was confident in her knowledge of swimming and with two years of assistant coaching experience already, she was ready to take on a team of 100-plus swimmers ages 4 to 18.

Even if there were a few minor bumps along the way.

"Last year was a little hard," said Egan, who turned 18 this week and is in her second season coaching the Rapids. "I knew if I made a mistake, people would say it's because I'm young. So I always wanted to make sure everything was perfect. When I was seeding a meet, I didn't want to make a mistake.

"When I first started, a lot of kids came from Gwin Oaks and they had an older coach who had been doing it for years, so that was different. ... But I think a lot of the younger kids liked having a younger coach. I was their friend instead of a teacher."

River Oak's selection of Egan is in line with what many Gwinnett County Swim League teams have done this summer and in summers past. The league doesn't lack for veteran coaches, but it also has a considerable number of young head coaches to oversee large teams. In Egan's case, her team has 130 swimmers.

Matt Turnblom, 19, has 193 on his Hamilton Mill squad. The 2009 Mill Creek grad felt some of the same pressures as Egan when he was a first-time head coach last summer at Wild Timber, which had 170 swimmers.

He switched jobs this summer because Hamilton Mill is his home neighborhood.

"I was an assistant coach for two years before I became a head coach and I ran practices my second year, so I kind of apprenticed my way into it," Turnblom said. "I wasn't thrown right into it. But you have to be tough as a young coach. You can't let the parents run all over you. ... I try to act as young as possible with the kids and stay as young as possible. It helps that I've been there a couple of years ago (on the swim team) and I can help them maybe in ways their parents can't."

Coaches of large teams spend hours daily on various practice sessions for the different age groups, on top of a heavy load of paperwork. Turnblom guesses he spends roughly 15 hours a week on practice, then another 30 hours on tasks like answering e-mails and seeding meets.

"Some days it's a full-time job answering e-mails and all the questions," he said.

In that capacity, a younger coach may be a better fit than an older coach who has a full-time job to consider. Most of the youthful coaches are college students back home in Gwinnett for the summer months.

Turnblom, Egan and other coaches also benefit from having experienced aides on their teams. They have a huge staff of volunteers and neighborhood leaders to help run meets, while the numerous assistant coaches, jobs that are regularly filled with high school swimmers, help at practices and meets.

"Most young coaches have a good support system," said 20-year-old Berkeley Hills coach Ali Slack, in her first summer as head coach after two years as an assistant. "I have great assistant coaches and a great lead council member. If you had to do it all by yourself, it would be really tough."

And in terms of swimming acumen, it's tough for parents to doubt the GCSL's youngest coaches. Most are or have been accomplished high school and year-round swimmers like Slack, a high school state champion at Greater Atlanta Christian in multiple events and now a rising senior on Harvard's swim team.

A select few coaches, like Egan, take on dual roles. She is still young enough to swim for River Oak, in addition to being the head coach.

"The younger kids really enjoy watching the coaches swim, they think it's cool," Egan said. "All of those little kids go to the edge of the pool to cheer for us."

Egan's two main assistants, Alma Lopez and Dylan Herzog, also are young. The threesome captained Brookwood's swim team last season before transitioning into their roles as coaches and swimmers.

Like Slack at Berkeley Hills and Turnblom at Hamilton Mill, they carry a number of titles, particularly with their youngest swimmers. They are coaches, but also friends and mentors, relationships that often develop more quickly when the coaches are closer in age to their swimmers.

"I remember growing up we always looked up to the coaches because they were the older kids, and a lot of junior coaches and assistant coaches still swim in the league," Slack said. "They were the role models for the swimmers. They were who the kids looked up to."