By Chase McFadden//Contributor | Wednesday, January 8, 2020
Makenzie Fixter — a proud Lander Tiger Shark — was asked what she learned after spending a few hours with five-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin. The young athlete first mentioned a technique critique. Then, after a thoughtful pause, she offered a more profound tip shared during the training session.
“She said I need to be straighter in my front crawl,” said the 11-year-old, and then she added with a smile, “And Missy told us that a happy swimmer is a good swimmer.”
Franklin and fellow Olympic champion Josh Davis recently spent an afternoon with a pool full of happy, good swimmers at the Bruce Gresly Aquatic Center in Lander, Wyoming. The former National Team members visited two days after the Lander Valley High School Lady Tigers captured the 3A state title for the fourth consecutive year. The high school boys’ quest to win a 24th straight Wyoming state championship was just beginning.
This is a community that truly values swimming. Success at the interscholastic level is due in large part to a strong, tradition-laden USA Swimming club program. This season the Tiger Sharks are 165 strong, an impressive roster for a small town of just over 7,500 residents.
Head coach Jennifer Hudson Schaff believes athletes who have achieved at the highest levels of the sport such as Davis and Franklin impact young swimmers by stressing the basics and providing examples of the diversity in every swimmer’s journey.
“From the swimming standpoint, I hope the swimmers remember that fundamentals are key to success,” Hudson Schaff said. “I love it when they take away some of their favorite drills and skills they learn from Olympic swimmers and share them with their teammates.
“And I’m always amazed at how each Olympian’s success happens so differently. Josh didn’t start swimming competitively until age 13 and Missy made her first Olympic Trials at age 13. What they have in common is their drive, passion and dedication — as well as a tremendous amount of outside support from family, team, coaches and everyone who wants them to succeed.”
Erik DeClue — a Lander assistant and Wyoming LSC Coach of the Year — knows it isn’t only the age groupers who benefit from time spent with the top-tier swimmers. “I get re-inspired at these clinics, mainly in the way I want to coach and in the way I want to treat the kids.
“Coaching every practice is fun but can get monotonous after a while,” he said. “Hearing these athletes share their stories helps me remember that every day is a different day and the kids will be in different moods. It reminds me how fun each practice can be if you try and make it that way.”
Technique advice from the Olympians resurfacing is fun, too.
“I love how the kids will remember little things they were taught,” said DeClue. “Then at random times throughout the season bring them back up.”
Davis’s message that living life as a kind, empathetic human is a more meaningful legacy than being a great swimmer resonated with Nolan McFadden.
“More than the swim technique, what stuck with me is that Josh is a super nice, down-to-earth guy. He was just super kind to everyone, even though as a swimmer he’s a lot better than us.
“I learned that no matter how good you are, you can be kind and supportive of everyone.”
The 15-year-old also appreciated the two-time Olympian’s understanding that everyone’s swim careers are unique.
“Josh talked about how he didn’t start swimming competitively until he was a freshman in high school, and he really wasn’t that good until his sophomore year,” McFadden said. “He knows what some of us have gone through who weren’t the best swimmers in the pool from a young age.”
That story of perseverance and Davis’s determination to push past negativity at the beginning of his career impacted fellow 15-year-old Ashlon Koch.
“It was super cool that when Josh was younger and first started, the coach he began with told him, ‘You’re never going to be anything as a swimmer. Find another sport.’ Then he went ahead and became an Olympian,” she marveled.
“It was probably hard being told you’re never going to be good at something. It’s amazing that he’d have that much dedication towards swimming.”
Koch pointed to Franklin’s unrelenting positivity as a trait she admires and will strive to emulate.
“I thought it was really cool how Missy lives everyday being happy and making things fun,” Koch said. “She’s so full of fun energy. I think it’s really awesome how she’s just a super upbeat person.”
Focusing in on individual goals by first articulating them in writing is a practice that Gilly Wheeler adopted after the clinic.
“Missy said to put your goals on a list, and that helped me,” she said. “It helps to keep priorities straight, and when you reach an achievement, you know it.”
The 13-year-old now keeps a written reminder of her swimming aspirations as well as her character goals. “Be grateful to people and appreciate the things people do for you” is on her list right alongside the time standards she hopes to swim.
In addition to the takeaways connected to Davis’s discussions of perseverance and kindness, there was one in-the-water moment during the session that McFadden is especially grateful for. A moment he realizes not every age group swimmer will get the opportunity to experience.
“During one workout I swam in the lane next to Josh,” he said. “It was a pretty amazing feeling to swim 50 yards next to someone who won a gold medal in the Olympics.”