Outside the Box Training: Humble Origins, Big Dreams


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Swimming is largely a sport about access. Though we don’t often discuss it much, if there isn’t a pool in a local community, chances are that community won’t be producing many U.S. Olympic swimmers. National Champions aren’t cultivated in backyard pools. Elite age groupers only flourish in 25-yard or 50-meter complexes, and if you don’t have one of these facilities within an hour’s drive, you’re chances of being a “good” swimmer are low.


Meet Emma and Dylan Schanz. This brother-sister combo is proving everyone wrong. They live in Colville, Emma and Dylan Schanz (medium)Washington. There is no regular pool there. The nearest club swim team is over an hour’s drive away in Spokane. But they love the sport and want to excel. So they train in a hotel pool. Yes, a hotel pool at a place called Benny’s Colville Inn. All winter long.

“It's busy,” Emma says. “Sometimes it's crazy and there are little kids there. We try not to hit them.”

The hotel pool is 20-yards long. It’s just three lanes wide. There are no lane lines. There is no pace clock. (They bring a small plexiglass pace clock, made by their father, to every practice.) There are no backstroke flags. (Emma has to look behind her for the wall.) They have no coach on deck. They have no teammates to push them, no peers to swim with, no friends to stay motivated.

“We have to hold each other accountable for getting up for practice in the morning,” Emma says. “We don't have a coach to get mad at us. It's tough to motivate each other. You have to learn how to push yourself.”

Here’s the twist: They are fast. Not just good, but jaw-dropping good, especially considering their training facility is often crowded with hotel patrons, water walkers, and small children. Dylan has a scholarship to swim and attend a college in Minnesota next fall. He’s a :58 100-yard breaststroker. And get this: His sister, Emma, just 15-years-old, swims an amazingly swift :54 in the 100-yard backstroke.

“The shorter training distance gives us a big disadvantage because of the endurance. I can feel it at the end of a 200,” Emma says. “You're missing that extra 5 yards. You think my turns would be good because I turn so much, but because it's so shallow, I can't get a good kick-out. You push off and you're already halfway down the pool.”

On Saturdays during the winter, and a few days each week in the summer, Emma and Dylan trek to Spokane to train with the Spokane Waves Swim Team. But in the winter when commuting is difficult and school is in session, they are back at the hotel pool. Waves head coach Kevin Wang sends them workouts from afar. Emma and Dylan then adjust these workouts to fit the 20-yard pool format.

“My brother and I convert our times,” Emma says. “It's 3-5 seconds faster. We have not as much rest. Because it's 8 laps for a 200, sometimes we have to do 10.”

Over the years Dylan has collected and put together a booklet of workouts. Dylan has even written some workouts for the both of them. Every morning, they hit the pool by themselves chasing the most unlikely of journeys: To win and drop time while training in a hotel pool. And they never skip out on a tough set. They hold each other accountable.

“We both motivate each other,” Dylan says. “If we see a set on the email we don't like, we talk about how much we don't want to do it, but we make each other do it.”

“People are like, ‘Oh man, you can probably skip practice whenever you want,’” Emma says. “But I feel bad when I miss practice. Everyone else is out there. I want to keep up with them, too.”

The siblings swim between 5-7,000 yards a workout, which is incredible considering they train alone in a pool where you can’t even perfect a backstroke kick-out before hitting the opposing wall. They’ve been doing this routine for a few years now. Before that, Emma and Dylan only really swam in the summer on a small recreational team. Now, they are practically their own coaches. They do their own dryland. They monitor each other’s strokes.

“We watch each other under water and above the water,” Dylan says. “We tell each other things we need to work on. I have an app on my iPod and we video tape each other sometimes.”

It makes you wonder: How fast could these two be if they had a regular club swim team and a regular pool facility to train during the winter? A coach regularly monitoring their stroke techniques? Dylan will find out answers to these questions this fall when he attends and competes for St. Cloud State in Minnesota.

“He has had some unique training experiences, so we are very excited to get him on campus in the fall and have him train with the team,” says St. Cloud State head coach Jeff Hegle.

“I honestly wouldn't change a thing, though,” Dylan says. “I learned a lot from it, how to push myself. How to self-motivate. Plus, it's cool to be like, ‘I did that on my own.’ Going into college now, a lot of kids go swim in college and they're semi-burned out. But I'm just excited. I'm ready to go.”

When Dylan leaves, Emma will be on her own. But she’s already accomplished so much, so quickly, with such humble origins and facilities. It’s a testament to her older brother, who is incredibly proud of his younger sister, training partner, and sometimes-coach. It’s also a testament to Emma herself.

Ultimately, this is a brother-sister story of the most unlikely of bonding.

“People don't realize how much they rely on their team to push them through practice and make it through winter training,” Emma says. She depends on her brother to sometimes get her to workouts.

Dylan says it’s been an experience he wouldn’t change. He’s excited to see where Emma will go with her remaining time before college.

“To have a sister you can train with, who can keep up with you…” Dylan explains. “It's awesome to see what she's done with it. I'm excited to see where she can take it.”

If you have any swimming stories, send them to swimmingstories@gmail.com. Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USA Swimming and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @MikeLGustafson.

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