By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
When Joe Glenn started the Farrington High School team in Hawaii six years ago, only one swimmer made it to the end of the season. Now, Joe has 11 swimmers on his high school swim team, and four of them went to the Hawaii State Championships this past season. Though Hawaii has a tradition of swimming, his high school, Farrington, has 2600 kids, and it’s been a long road to attract more kids to the sport. This week, we talked with Joe about his journey starting a high school swim team in Hawaii.
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Tell me how the Farrington High School Team got started.
I started teaching swimming six years ago. I approached the principal of Farrington to see if they even had a swim team, and found out they didn’t have one. Then I approached the athletic director to start one. He gave me permission. We had an after school meeting to see who was interested. Three kids showed up. We have 2600 kids at our school. We had one swimmer left by the end of the season. She went 1:00 in the 100 free.
Each year we grew it by a little bit. Two years ago, a couple kids asked me if they could swim club. I told them we could see about that, but I explained the fee structure, and that turned them off a little bit, because of their economic background. I approached the board of directors on the club team and explained that they were missing an opportunity because a lot of people would love to swim but don’t come from a strong economic background. So, now a few of my swimmers swim club.
So you started a program that allowed the high school kids to swim club for free?
Not for free totally, but almost for free. They were scared of the different world of club swimming, but a couple of them were definitely interested in swimming year-round. At this point there are five kids on the high school team who swim year round for the club, Punahou Aquatics.
What made you want to start a high school team in the first place?
It just seemed right that there would be a high school swim team in the largest public school in Hawaii. We actually do have a beautiful 50m facility. It hasn’t been operational in 15 years. The school had the first three state championships in Hawaii at that pool. I swam throughout high school and college myself, and competitive swimming was important to me, so it just felt right to start a high school team.
Why was the pool shut down?
There was a number of issues. They installed the wrong type of pump. Then they had to do several fixes every year in the mid-90s. Then I think they had to invest 300-400k dollars. I think they viewed the pool as a liability in terms of cost per month, people sneaking in at night, that sort of thing. At the end of the 1990s, they made a commitment to not go with the pool anymore, and it fell into further and further disrepair.
So, you go from one swimmer finishing the season back in 2006 to this year, when you had four swimmers swimming at high school states. How did you attract more kids to the team?
To be honest, we only had 11 people on the team this year. I guess just consistency. At first, people aren’t sure about competitive swimming. Swimming isn’t a huge sport at our school. There are zero club swimmers out of 2600 kids in our school. I don’t know if there’s anything special I did. Just consistency. They got last place almost every race the first few years. But they stuck with it.
Is there a culture of swimming in your area?
It’s very much divided among socio-economic lines. There is a rich swimming history in Hawaii. It’s just in a lot of ways, economic feasibility.
My poorly educated impression is that everyone in Hawaii surfs.
Surfing has its own barriers. Equipment. Transportation. There was a guy at our high school who started a surf club, and he didn’t have any surfers to start with. There were kids who body boarded, but they could just bring their boards on the bus.
Describe the area these kids grow up in.
It’s a mixed neighborhood in terms of businesses and manufacturing, but right next to that is dense and residential. It’s very dense. Farrington is near one of the two largest housing projects in Hawaii. It’s a beautiful geographic area. There are also some problems that are associated with a dense urban environment.
Do you think kids there would benefit from more after-school activities?
There’s a need for more after school programming. The school has sports. It’s not different from any other high school in that regard. But there’s a need for more programming at the youth level. There’s no soccer. No swim clubs. No youth baseball leagues. There are also people who live in the neighborhood who go to private schools. Hawaii is not like Detroit where the lines of demarcation are very clear.
What does competitive swimming offer that is unique to other ways kids can enjoy the water – like surfing or ocean swimming?
Competitive swimming is just more structured. I think that it’s going to build confidence in a certain way when they see fitness levels improve and they beat someone in a race. Competitive swimming brings out the competitive nature in everyone. When you’re losing every time, it can become disheartening. You preach the values of competitive swimming – and success will come.
What is your outlook for the team in the future? Do you gauge success based on participatory levels?
I would say the goals are definitely more participation based. But kids are very competitive in races. They see there’s an opportunity in themselves. Every time if someone on your team gets last place, it can get disheartening. Yes, it’s participation-based, but I want the swimmers to be engaged and set goals, just like any other swim coach.
What is the biggest struggle attracting more kids to the team?
Most kids have never seen a swim meet. Maybe they’ve seen Olympic swimming on TV. But it’s not like many have family members who were competitive swimmers growing up. Many kids may think, “Oh competitive swimming, I have to be elite to participate in that activity.”
Talk about your affiliation with your club team. How do the club and high school teams mutually benefit each other?
I club coach at Punahou Aquatics, and I’ve been doing that for three and a half years. We got second at age group states in 2011. We have people at the junior sectional level. It’s one of the more respected clubs out here in Hawaii. Punahou High School won the #1 sports school in the United States two years in a row. They’ve one 45 out of 50 state championships.
Many of the top swimmers from Punahou High School swim for Punahou Aquatics. The swimmers from Farrington High School get the benefit of swimming with top level swimmers and seeing what it takes to be successful at the highest levels. The swimmers from Punahou School get the benefit of training with swimmers who come from a very different background than their own which only serves to enrich their swimming experience. In this way it is a win-win for both sides.
How far away is the Punahou School from Farrington?
What explains the difference in swimming success?
It’s hard to explain. They have a legacy.
Is there a problem with pool facilities in Hawaii?
That’s a huge problem. I think lack of ability to find pool time is a struggle for a lot of high school teams around here.
Why do you think that, in a place like Hawaii, there is not a unified and vast culture of competitive swimming when they are so close in proximity to water relative to other areas of the country, like Iowa or Kansas?
Kids do what their friends do. If all your friends play football growing up, that’s what you’re going to do. I think because you can’t find a “pick-up swim race” in most neighborhoods, but you can find a pick-up basketball game, or play football in any park, swimming in nature needs to be a very organized activity. It’s just a matter of having the programming in place, in terms of competitive swimming. Even just the organization in place. There’s no summer league out here. There are some recreational teams, but that’s not a huge program as of yet.
What advice do you have for people reading this who may want to start their own school swim team?
Don’t expect overnight success. A lot of people want to do this for the right reasons, but you can be easily frustrated by different factors. But if you have it in your mind that you can do this and you’re in it to see how far you can take the kids, you will get where you want to go eventually. There are a lot of good role models to see how it’s done.
There is a strong swimming community in Hawaii, but it’s just not everywhere. The unique thing is people would think so, because it’s Hawaii.