In the Swim of Things
Brunswick Aquatic Club, the Gators, makes life in the fast lanes fun.
Most afternoons Gavin Spake, his younger brother, Job, and their friend Nick Boehmer stand at the water’s edge on puddled concrete, watching young people streamline through each other’s wakes, back and forth, 25 yards at a time.
As coaches of the Brunswick Aquatic Club swim team, they share a common goal for these athletes, whose developments range from Hatchlings (10 and under) to Silver 2 (15 and older), with five age-and-ability levels in between.
The Gators, as the team is known, fill the rope-lane section of the Dinah E. Gore Fitness & Aquatics Center pool complex at Brunswick Community College in Bolivia six days a week.
“We want them to enjoy the season,” Gavin says. “They need to have a focus on what they’re doing, but we do let the kids have fun, let them goof off a little bit and mess around a little. But at some point, that ends and we start our next set.”
Gavin has been doing this a while. He’s coached in Wilmington and Raleigh and got the Gators job in December 2019.
“If they want to swim in college, I would love to see them pursue that,” he says, “and see the team continue to grow and have an impact on the community. We need to let all of Brunswick County know we’re here, know what we’re doing.”
The nonprofit aquatic club’s mission statement is “to empower Brunswick County’s emerging generations to be the best they can be, for a lifetime in and out of the water. While providing a safe and supportive environment for a competitive swimming regiment, our swimmers are able to develop a positive self-image while learning commitment, leadership and goal-setting skills.”
The club is parent-run, with a board of directors that welcomes and encourages everyone to attend its meetings. Their written philosophy includes “self-esteem,” “goal achievement,” “strive for personal excellence” and “become the best they are capable of becoming.”
Gavin and Job Spake grew up breathing the scent of chlorine. Gavin swam competitively from age 5 to 21, won six high school championships and, in college at UNC Wilmington, three conference team championships. As head age group coach in a previous job, he coached state and sectional champions and had a swimmer set two national records. Job began competing at age 4, was a four-year States qualifier in high school and swam one season for Norwich University in Vermont before segueing to coaching. Boehmer, who also works as a physical therapist, swam competitively in Pennsylvania, moved to North Carolina in 2002 and has three children on the Gators team.
Now in his early 30s, Gavin, as head coach and director of competitive swimming, oversees about 65 team members, guiding them through a long course season (May through August, in 50-meter pools) and short course (September through March, 25-yard pools), concluding with the ECSL [East Cooper Swim League] Championships in Wilmington in March. People can sign up anytime, even if a season has started. Workouts can run 45 minutes twice a week for young kids to two-and-a-half hours five times a week plus dryland conditioning for more advanced team members.
“Depending on the level or the group, we start with a warm-up, take a little break and explain our next set, do something easy, then do another set, depending on what day it is,” Gavin says. “We try to switch it up a little bit. One day may be more distance freestyle, one day a little more IM (individual medley). The kids need to have a point for what we’re doing. If it’s 2,000 yards that practice, or 6,000 yards that practice, they need to have that focus. I don’t believe in ‘garbage yardage.’ That’s when you’re just doing a ton of yards, and I like to avoid that.”
Monthly dues range from $48 for Hatchlings to $118 for Silver Group 2. Levels – the others are White, Green, Gray, Black and Silver 1 – are determined by skill and commitment level.
The Gators are in their tenth season. Some have advanced to college teams, Gavin says, and one swimmer competed for a winning national championship team in college.
“As kids get older, they start to specialize in one stroke or another,” Gavin says. “My philosophy is, you need to learn all four strokes, and we want to see your butterfly get better, because then the other strokes get stronger.”
As with any sport that demands intense dedication, the Gators coaches understand that burnout happens. Life happens. That’s why the team addresses topics such as time commitment, cost and juggling activities away from the pool.
The team abides by national Safe Sport guidelines, and it has a Ten Commandments for Swimming Parents, a list about guidance, friendship, patience and sportsmanship — qualities of competitive athletics that hold more value than ribbons and trophies. The commandments, each with an explanation, include phrases such as “be supportive no matter what,” “only have positive things to say at a swim meet,” “acknowledge your child’s fears,” “have goals besides winning” and “thou shalt not expect thy child to become an Olympian.”
United States Swimming, the sport’s governing body, has about 225,000 competitors. There are 52 Olympics spots every four years, making the odds about 1 in 4,300 of making a team. According to that commandment’s explanation: “Ask your coach why he coaches, chances are that he was not an Olympian, but still got enough out of swimming that he wants to pass that love for the sport on to others. Swimming teaches self-discipline and sportsmanship; it builds self-esteem and fitness; it provides lifelong friendships and much more. Most Olympians will tell you that these intangibles far outweigh any medal they may have won.”
Gavin says that’s what makes it all worthwhile.
“I tell them every day,” he says, “It’s not about me. It’s not the suits. It’s the work you put in. And to see my kids getting better, and enjoying it as much as I do, it makes it all worthwhile.”
Want to swim?
Brunswick Aquatic Club
Dinah E. Gore Fitness & Aquatics Center
Brunswick Community College, 210 College Road NE, Bolivia
Facebook @Brunswick Aquatic Club