'Like a Family': Sandshark Swimmers Grow Up Together
The Sandhills Sandsharks is a local swim team program that encourages swimmers to meet their full potential.
Hanging next to head coach Taylor Cooper’s office door, at their home pool at The O’Neal School, there is a big sign that reads, “Three Ds to success — Desire; Discipline; Dedication.”
This year’s group of Sandshark high school senior swimmers consisting of Mark Carey, Allison DiTomasso, Alyssa Fish, Ana Fish and Kurt Wohlrab all clearly exemplify each of those virtues. All of them attend Pinecrest High School where they also are members of the school’s swim team.
“This group has been together for around six years now, pretty much since they were 12,” said Cooper. “Kurt was kind of the last piece. They are all military kids, which is somewhat neat because they have a particularly strong sense of team unity and commitment to a group. All of them are excellent students, extremely hard workers and it has been a real pleasure to be able to work with this group over the past couple of years.
“While most of our kids are together for as long as this group, we usually start out with a bigger group and over time it dwindles where when their senior year of high school rolls around we graduate two to three kids a year probably (from the Sandsharks). This year’s group is a little bigger than most primarily because they lived up to the expectations and standards I set when they started, which are the same expectations I have imparted on every group.
“Those have not changed since I began coaching nor will they change. Those expectations are to do what is necessary and what the sport entails to get better and steadily progress.”
Having been the head coach for 15-plus years, Cooper is not surprised by the quality people his swimmers typically are once they make it through to the end of their time as Sandsharks. It is the program’s mission to create an environment where each athlete is provided an opportunity to achieve their full potential as senior swimmers.
The program’s philosophy is focused on fostering, promoting and developing interest in competitive swimming. As the swimmer sticks with the program and develops, Cooper emphasizes a greater commitment must be met for the individual to meet his full potential. Along with developing as a swimmer, Cooper believes that Sandshark members gain valuable life skills towards competition, teamwork, discipline, and dedication.
“Yeah my kids are committed,” Cooper said, “They are good students and are leaders in their communities. For me, I want people to understand it is not so much about the commitment to the sport. It is about the commitment to those things — being a good person, a leader in your community, a leader on a team, a leader in academics, and all that.
“In the same breath, when it is all said and done, I could really care less how good of swimmers the kids in our program are or become. It is more about them showing up every day, committing to it, and committing to all the necessary things and then you get a group like this year’s group.”
Although each of this year’s five senior Sandsharks are superior swimmers who have all won countless accolades, Kurt Wohlrab stands out as the brightest shining star of the bunch. Last season he was an All-America selection and placed second at the 4-A N. C. High School Athletic Association state swimming championships in the 100-yard breaststroke and fifth in the 100 butterfly while swimming for Pinecrest High School.
“Last year was a very good one for me in becoming an All-American.” Wohlrab said, “and also finishing second at states as a junior was a great accomplishment. This year will hopefully be a little better, by getting first place at states and earning All-American honors again.”
Wohlrab is coming off a fourth-place finish in the 100 breaststroke at the 2011 Junior National Championships in Austin, Texas. Cooper feels that Kurt’s time at that event should put him in the top-10 nationally, at the high school level in the event. Wohlrab is a two-time all-state selection and is a scholastic All-American.
“I actually just had a big swim meet in December where I went 56 seconds in the breast, “ Wohlrab said, “so I am already a second faster than I was last year. The time is looking good this year because every year besides this one I played football. Not this year though, and that allowed me to have the background training for the past couple of months where usually I would just be getting into the water because I had time off from football.
“With the high school regional and state coming up here in about a month, my prospects look pretty good as I am coming off that solid background training and just wrapped up Christmas training, too.”
For Wohlrab, who started swimming competitively when he was 5, the sport is a perfect fit.
“I am a very competitive person by nature,” he said. “I am also self-driven, so I enjoy racing the clock and thrive on getting up early to train because it is what you have to do. This sport helps you become self-motivated and self-disciplined. Those traits swimming instills all help you with pretty much everything you encounter in life, from school to socially.”
With his times and talent, Wohlrab has been getting looks from plenty of Division I colleges.
“I have not committed to a school yet at the collegiate level,” said Wohlrab. “I still have a few trips coming up. In about two weeks, I will be taking a look at UNC Chapel Hill, and soon after that Florida State University — that is what I have booked now. Along with those too, I am also very interested in Southern Cal (University of Southern California). I have family out there and I don’t know if I would get any scholarship money but they have said I could walk-on there. They have a pretty amazing group of breaststrokers out there, which is what I swim, so that would be fun.”
Ana Fish also has a decorated history over her past seasons at the main swim meets of the year. Last year she placed ninth in the state in the 100-yard freestyle and was an all-state winner at the Junior Nationals this winter.
“Things have been going good for us,” said Fish. “We have been training hard and just got out of Christmas training, which was two practices a day, plus weightlifting, so we are still trying to recover from that while everyone else was sleeping.
“I think swimming is a lot different than other sports, because it’s not only really physically demanding but you also have to be self-disciplined. When you are out there in the pool there is no one sitting there in the water telling you to go faster or to keep up with everyone else, or blowing a whistle. You have to go on your time and work as hard as you can to do the best you can.”
She also swims the 50-yard freestyle, and is a part of the Pats’ 200-yard freestyle and medley relay teams. Last season at the NCHSAA championships where she was representing Pinecrest, she made it to the finals (by placing in the top 16) in 50 and the 100 free as well as the two relays.
“My whole life it has been my goal to get a full-ride to some college,” she said. “Right now I am not sure where I am going to go, but I have heard from several colleges that they want to recruit me and offer me a scholarship — so it is like my big dream.
“This group I am fortunate enough to be a part of is amazing. We have been together since middle school, it’s like everyday, we see each other for at least three hours, and we are so close. Plus, the pool is only so big, so we all know everything about each other and are all really good friends. This group, and the way we have grown together, has taught me to really value your true friends and to keep them as close as possible. We have been so close for so long and been through so much — we are like a family.”
‘Have to Keep Going’
Ana’s twin sister, Alyssa, has been there by her side every step of the way. Alyssa has been enjoying the ride that is her senior year thus far.
“It has been going well,” Alyssa said. “We have been setting some records — like at our last meet we set a lot of records here for this (The O’Neal School’s) pool, which was pretty exciting. We have regionals coming up in like a month, and if you do well enough there, then you go to states — and we have all made states since freshman year.
“I’m still working on it a bit, but I will probably be swimming in college (next year.) Lenoir-Rhyne (University) has offered me a scholarship, and I went on a recruiting trip there in November and I really liked it — it was good.”
Like her sister, Alyssa has have been with the Sandsharks for about six years. While she admits the training is hard, she knows it is worth it.
“Our training is tough but just so beneficial in many ways,” said Alyssa. “This group we have has been together since fifth grade for the most part. My sister and I have known Allison (DiTomasso) since fifth grade — so we are all really close.
“Also, Taylor is so much more than my coach. He pretty much regulates everything everyone is doing all the time in school, social life and all that to make sure we are all on track and are doing what we are supposed to be doing to have success. He never lets us slack off and is always pushing us to give our best — so he has really taught me to persevere, because swimming is a hard sport to stay with — lots of people have quit and he motivates us to keep going.”
The competitive aspect of swimming is also what most attracts Alyssa to the sport.
“The competition of swimming is what got me hooked and kept me coming back,” she said. “It is still the main thing I love about the sport. Looking back, swimming has taught me a lot about life. You can’t give up, ever, regardless of how hard it gets — it doesn’t matter — you just have to keep going.”
Forming a Bond
Allison DiTomasso, who swims the 100 and 200 backstroke and the 100 breaststroke, is another one of the special swimmers that comprise the Sandsharks’ 2012 senior class. For her, the bond she has made with her fellow seniors is what sticks out most.
“The reason I want to continue the sport is the bond we have formed,” said DiTomasso. “No one else at school really understands this bond we have forged, because they don’t understand how hard we work to do what we do or really appreciate swimming. In a way, that is what makes us so close — that shared experience and growth.”
DiTomasso has been swimming with the Sandsharks for close to nine years now. Last season, she qualified for states in the 100 back and fly, and just missed the final by one in the backstroke. The NCHSAA does not offer individual 200 events but the 200 backstroke is her favorite race. Her performances and times have gained the interests of several colleges and universities.
“For the schools I am considering, my times are where I need them to be,” she said. “A lot of the schools I am looking at don’t offer swimming as well as the academics I want, so it is 50-50 on whether or not I will swim at the collegiate level. Pretty much, half the schools (that) I have applied to have swimming and the other half don’t.”
Regardless of whether she swims in college or not, she will always remember and cherish her days as a Sandshark.
“For me I am military — actually we are all military — so I moved around a lot before I got here,” said DiTomasso. “Since I am the last child, my parents will probably move away when I am gone. But I won’t come back (here) to go to my high school reunion, I would not come back for any of that stuff. I would come back to see the Sandsharks.
“We all have a bond with ‘Coop’ (Taylor Cooper) that a lot of other sports teams don’t have with their coach or each other, because we spend so much time together it is just ridiculous — they are like my second family.”
In a telling statement, Cooper described the type bond that this 2012 senior group possesses.
“These kids in this group will bleed for each other, they are that close,” he said. “The same thing has been true for most all groups we have had. We have a Sandshark forever party each year and it’s cool because the shared experience of the different classes helps them bond as well, and we don’t have that many alumni.
“If they can make it back, they all come to the reunion every year to keep that group bond and program bond alive. This year we are actually having our 30th reunion, which we plan to tie in with our yearly banquet, so the younger kids can meet some of our older alumni which will be extra special and we will have dinner party after for the alumni.”
In closing, Cooper touched on leadership and its importance in swimming and in life.
“Swimming is a hard sport,” he said. “It is hard getting up in the morning to train. It is a sport where you just get beat down — that’s the goal — then you rest for two weeks after you have been training for five months. So you feel good for about two to three weeks.
“The difference in the team aspect of the sport is that in the pool, you can’t hide who you are. Eventually the real you will come out in that lane and as a group, everyone has to come to accept each member for who they are and work together as they train constantly month after month, and year after year.
“Moreover, where I am coming from is ‘don’t be a follower, be a leader.’ For that to happen, sometimes it takes a resignation that ‘I am not going to bend,’ that is the discipline — you know — in life sometimes you have to make choices.”
Contact F.W. Manning II at email@example.com.
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