Updated: May 11, 2022
Written By: Kevin Weldon
I have been asked to provide some food for thought and share some of my experiences in building a nationally recognized swim program for the past 33 years here in Dayton, Ohio, with the Dayton Raiders. I hope what I share with you will be useful for some coaches out there who find themselves in a similar situation and share my same vision. The plan is to provide some background information on the club, where we came from, to the present, and then list what I consider the BEST take away points.
Little History of the Early Years…Prior to becoming the Dayton Raiders, in the 50’s The Dayton Dolphins Swim Club was born. Little unknown fact, no other than the distinguished Jon Urbanchek got his start in coaching here with an All Girls Team in the late 50’s. In the early 80’s the name changed to Dayton Raiders because of the affiliation with Wright State University Raiders. The Raiders actually became an Auxillary Club of the university until the mid90’s.
Now, let me preface my story by first explaining that prior to my arrival in 1989, the Dayton Raiders, (previously known as the Dayton Dolphins), had established itself as a club team that consistently developed some very good swimmers. In fact, in 1976 under Head Coach Scott Seely, the Dayton Dolphins placed a female swimmer on the 1976 USA Olympic Team, Renee Laravie. I was fortunate enough to swim with Renee and for Coach Seely. I learned a lot from Scott and can say that that time greatly influenced my decision to make a career out of swim coaching. Never in my wildest dreams did I envision returning to the area where it all began.
Fast forward to 1989
I was coaching in Jackson, MS, (1985-1989), coaching the Sunkist Swim Team when the Dayton Raider position became available for a second time in 16 months. Even though I had very good success in the deep-south, I felt that it was time for a change to see if I could do the same thing at a higher level. It just so happened to be my “old team”.
I remember my first day on deck in the spring of 1989 and thinking I had 150+ swimmers to work with, but was actually about 50 swimmers. Coaches! Learn from my mistake, and make sure you have all the information you need to make a coaching decision that will not only affect you as a coach, but your family as well.
1989-2008 THE REBUILDING YEARS
Once I got past the initial shock of “low” team numbers and evaluating the quality of kids, it was time to go to work on a plan to “re-load” the team in numbers and provide quality coaching. I will be honest, many nights I thought to myself, what have I gotten us into with this move. Lucky for me, I had the best support system with a loving and trusting wife, total support of the club to move the team forward, and I had the trust of the kids who were all engaged!
My first decision was to hire an outstanding age group coach for the club. I was fortunate to hire a young, enthusiastic coach, Bob Rueppel, from Jersey Wahoos/St. Bonaventure. Bob was a tremendous help in rebuilding the club numbers from the “grassroots level” by recruiting from neighboring summer leagues. He brought in 30+ brand new swimmers of various ages onto the team and from that point we were on our way. Many of those swimmers developed into some of our best senior level swimmers by the time they graduated. We thrived each summer after that and were able to re-load, replace and add swimmers onto the team, and we were able to grow our team numbers to 80, 100, 130, 150+ for the next 10 years. Note: we all know that the best recruiting place is from summer leagues and also from swim schools. I would add that the younger, the better. It is great to have senior level swimmers, but they first have to develop from the 10 & U.
Our team success increased exponentially each year, and although Bob later moved on, I was able to hire other very good, and passionate coaches, Brad Wolgast and then Brent Peaden. Brent is still with me which speaks volumes for consistency in staff. Some of my best coaches were former swimmers who swam for me, thus, knew the system. I constantly tell coaches from all over, to never, dismiss the importance of hiring an outstanding head age group coach and support staff. When you find them, hang on to them for as long as you can. As a male coach, I also feel very strongly about finding great female coaches, who can coach both boys and girls, especially those who can coach teenagers. They are invaluable asset and can be your secret weapon!
I must admit that over the first 15-20 years, a HUGE credit for our overall team success exists with my support staff. I have been fortunate to find coaches that have incredible swimming knowledgeable, were unselfish with their time to work with kids, and have been such great role models. “The importance of hiring the right people to coach the age group swimmers is the head coach’s #1 job! Without these individuals attracting young swimmers and providing the best technical skill work at the entry level years, there would be no senior level swimmers to work with.” Consistency in coaching staff, creating a safe swimming environment and trusting and selling the process, has been paramount to our success. Hire coaches who challenge not only the swimmers, but other members of the coaching staff.
As it turned out, we gained new swimmers from around the Greater Dayton Area and hired more coaches because our numbers grew. In return, we reaped the benefits of becoming one of the best age group teams in Ohio Midwest. We were always able to continue to send a few athletes to junior and senior nationals, and, on occasion, Olympic Trials. I think it is worth mentioning that through the process, we were able to capitalize on a few club awards by winning the Ohio Senior Championships numerous times. Maybe the ultimate feat was in the summer of 2004, we won our first of several J.O. Championships. Remember, we did this on less than 150 kids on the team…TOTAL! So, we started to gain some state and national recognition as a small swim club competing with the large swim clubs in the country.
Mind you we all worked very, hard to find ways to continue to get better each year. I challenged the coaches to keep up the intensity, establish new team goals, and to challenge swimmers to represent Dayton Raiders at ALL levels of swimming (high school state, J.O. Champs, Juniors, Seniors and Olympic Trials. My favorite mantras at this time were, “Suck it Up Buttercup”, “Do the Work”, and “Get on the Pain Train”.
Taking the leap of faith
I remember sitting at the 2008 Olympic Trials watching my two swimmers compete and it was at that moment that I decided I wanted more for this club. We have always had decent results, but USA Swimming had just started the Club Excellence Program, and I really thought achieving this goal would be a great “vision” for the club.
I knew very little about it, other than I wanted to be recognized as a Gold Medal Club. I knew the club history was not going to be enough to achieve this standard because it would require more than just a few swimmers to achieve this milestone. As it turns out, it takes a multiple number of 18 & U athletes racing at a very elite level. I knew that if this was truly a long range goal, we would need to develop our talented young group of swimmers. This goal would challenge us all, from the age group through senior. The entire staff felt that the time was right for setting this plan in motion. We had a good number of quality 14 & U kids with very good skills, who loved to race and worked well as a group in and out of the water. Fortunately for us, as a result of our age group performances, we had a team growth spurt after the 2008 Olympics and we picked up some other high level athlete transfers who were looking for more and sought out our services. This was not by design, and I know it does not happen often, but it was definitely a huge part of our success in the upcoming years.
The next step was to convince the swim team board that I needed to hire another high level coach to help assist me in running the senior groups. I had, for most of my career and up to that time, ran everything myself with various “part time” coaching assistance. Fortunately for us, I was able to attain the services of a past cross town “rival” coach, Gary Galbreath, who had left the area for a few years, but wanted to come back. This is by far my smartest move in my career! My advice to other teams/ coaches is that if you want to move up the ladder of excellence, hire other great coaches who share the same goals and principles and the love of the sport as you do. I respect all coaches who I have had the honor to share the deck with and I have no problem sharing our success with each and every one of them. Running a successful age group swim program requires many loyal, passionate and dedicated individuals to make it work. If there is one thing I could do over again, it would be to delegate more work to others instead of trying to do it all myself. It is not healthy physically, mentally or spiritually for one person to do it all. Hence, I have always tried to acknowledge my sincere thanks and gratitude to each and every coach who has ever coached with us and especially who coached with me. Don’t be afraid to stand up and go to bat for your assistants, asking for a raise, writing letters of recommendations, and helping them to advance in their career. That is the sign of a great program, (having staff be pursued by other swim clubs to bring the same magic to their club).
(Mind you… EVERYTHING we accomplished from this point forward was with “limited pool time and resources”!
Setting up the plan 2009-2010
I remember sitting in a Panera one morning with Gary Galbreath and Eric Limkemann (another top notch coach and former swimming great at University of Pittsburgh/World-Class Triathlete) and jotting down notes, devising a plan to get us to the Gold Medal Standard. Honestly, we had no concise starting point so we collected all our ideas and then began to discuss each of them in depth. We knew that we had a good group of athletes that would be around for several years. We found another pool to train in, 25 meters and basically at our disposal. We enlarged and printed the Club Excellence time standards and posted them on the wall at the pool along with several other time standards like Olympic Trials, Junior, Senior National, and Top 100 times. At this time, we felt that the best way to get the swimmers to see themselves achieving these Gold Medal Standards, we would first need to get as many of them to the Junior National Level. In those two seasons, we were able to increase the number of swimmers who either achieved the Junior National times or were on an accelerated path to very shortly.
2011-2012 ( 1st Junior National Team Champions & Gold Medal Team)
Once we had what we considered a decent number of athletes achieving national level time standards, the coaches and swimmers started to get “excited” and really believed they could actually “pull off” this venture. So, the emphasis switched to not only achieving the time standards, but to start believing they could be a top 10 team at Junior Nationals, placing in the top 8,16 in individual events and relays.
Before we knew it, we were top 3 on the Boys side at the 2011 Junior Nat meet in Palo Alto which was just an unbelievable meet for us with 4 swimmers achieving Olympic Trial cuts.
In the spring of 2012, we qualified “8 Olympic Trial qualifiers”, won the Men’s Sectionals and Combined Team Title. Then, in the summer, 2012, we won the Men’s Junior National Team Championship by .5 pts over Swim Mac with 6 boys. That very same year we were also #8 in the country in the Club Excellence. Mission accomplished in less than 3 years! Just to make sure it was not a “fluke,” the Raiders would repeat with a 14th place Club Excellence/Gold Medal Team in 2013.
It didn’t hurt that after so many years of swimming in some of the worse facilities one could imagine, we started negotiations with the local YMCA about the purchase of one of their sites that they no longer felt they could continue to run. The club took the leap of faith and decided to buy the old Y. Even though we were now in the swim business, it was a huge “shot in the arm” for the club to have our own facility. It also put us in control of our own “destiny”, which can be both frightening and exciting.
We soon figured out that in order to keep things in the black, we had to become very creative in using the facility that became known as the “DRAC”, Dayton Raider Aquatic Center. We rented out space for a church to use for Sunday service, and we rented to various high school teams for practice during high school season along with hosting high school meets. Another great thing that evolved sort of by accident, was the hiring of a personal trainer, fitness guru, Ken Hunter, to rent space in the facility to run his business. We contracted with him to run our team dryland which was another great bonus for our kids and took the stress off the coaching staff. Finally, we started our own Learn to Swim Program which has evolved into quite an operation and actually is the largest revenue earning entity in the DRAC. It was during this time of the acquisition of the DRAC, that Gary recruited a former All-American swimmer, Meghan Olson, who was doing lap swimming at the DRAC to coach with us and help run the Learn to Swim. Lucky for us, it turns out Meghan did quite a bit of club coaching prior to her arrival in Dayton. Meghan really added so much value to the club, to the Senior Groups and she provided a much need “strong” female presence on deck which the kids loved. Her ability to coach at a high level also allowed me to drop down a group to coach our group below that needed some extra help for one year.
2014-2019…reaping the benefits of establishing a great training plan
Unfortunate for us, but fortunately for Gary, he was heavily touted by several teams, so he moved on to run his own successful club in Missouri… Columbia Swim Club. To me it was a “No Brainer” to hire Meghan, who had proved herself capable of the job and we worked well together. I was so fortunate to have two outstanding individuals who were so passionate about swimming, super personalities, and the most talented coaches I have ever had the pleasure to share the deck. They also became two of my closest friends and we worked well together, had fun and got a lot of kids to swim fast. I know it does not always happen that way, but, “It is so important to hire other great, qualified coaches to work with, who share the same goals, coaching philosophies, coaches who challenge other coaches to be better. I have been fortunate that all the coaches who I have ever had the honor to share the deck with, have been so unselfish with their coaching. Consequently, this team worked so well together for quite a few years! Consistency in staff = quality development and performances!”
Our team success continued for quite a few years to come. We won Junior Nationals a 2nd time in the summer of 2016 with 4 boys and were awarded our 3rd Gold Medal Club Excellence in 2019. So, I think it is safe to say that this was not a “one and done situation”, because once the program was set up, it seemed to keep re-generating itself. Kids moved out, graduated, were replaced by younger kids within the program, or we picked up some talented transfers who were looking for something more. One accomplishment that I am most proud of in all my time here, is the Dayton Raiders continue to send athletes to some of the VERY BEST academic/athletic college programs in the country. This still continues today.
Covid winter of 2019-2020
As we were entering the 2019-2020 season, I could see that the next few years were going to be challenging because we had a drop in membership in the 12-14 age brackets for the past few years, so that was certainly going to affect us very soon. That time came quickly! It also didn’t help that we had graduating classes of 16,17,19,19 in subsequent years which wrecked “havoc” on our senior team numbers and consequently on the quality of athletes remaining. Then, Boom Covid-19 invaded us all and “Houston we have a problem”! Our numbers dropped like so many other teams did, had to furlough coaches, and lost swimmers upon return to the pool for various reasons. Even after all of that, I felt we did a great job this past season in maintaining a national presence and continued to perform at a very high level at the state, regions and national level meets. “My advice is to always be looking and planning far enough out to avoid a year or two where you have gaps in your training groups.”
Today…Looking to repeat history
It is ironic that with the timing of this article, it has given me time to go back and look at the past 10-15 years. I know that these situations are “cyclical”, but maybe, the timing is right to see if history could actually repeat itself here in the next 3 years. That is where I currently find myself in my daily thoughts! “We have a talented group of 12 & U that look like they may have what I call, “the “X” factor”, that little something extra that distinguishes them from others. My age group coaches have been grooming this group for the past couple of years, so they just might be the next wave of Dayton Raiders to take on this challenge.
Below I have tried to capture the main points from my journey. My hope is that maybe some of you coaches out there might be able to begin your own journey similar to mine with similar results:
Entire staff must be on the same page and supportive of one another
Do whatever you can to hire talented young coaches who want to learn, want to grow, and who share the same goals and philosophy, teach similar stroke mechanics, race strategies, training cycles
Identify the athletes who look to be the next wave of “superstar” swimmers for your club and begin discussing with them and their group about the various competitive levels, time standards, meets, swim camps…”GET THE BUY IN”
Next, must get the support from the parents/ board if you have a chance of succeeding
Once the groups are identified, then the actual intense training begins, learning how to train, learning to incorporate dryland training, learning how to compete and finally learning to succeed by setting goals(both team and individual goals)
Set up meet schedules that will begin exposing the younger swimmers to bigger and higher caliber meets
Post the various USA SWIMMING time standards around the pool for all to see
Begin having weekly 30 min meetings to discuss various topics and/or how training is going, what is needed to get better, etc
Use social media as extensively as possible to expose your team to the community
Make sure your plan allows for team growth
Need to constantly evaluate all areas of the swim program, learn to swim, dryland…discuss areas that need assistance
Incorporate changes sooner rather than later and after board approval
Create a contingency plan for the unexpected, such as loss of coaches, pool goes down for some mechanical reason, be flexible and accommodating to all swim groups, learn to swim and various rentals
Never stop learning from each other or from all the information sources afforded to us nowadays through the internet, podcast, on line classes, etc.
Make sure you are having fun with it, if not, then go back and make it fun
In closing, I hope some of you found our story to be useful, informative, to get the creative juices flowing and not just be a chronological account of one clubs journey. I quickly realized that this was not going to be a quick account because this journey took many turns, involved so many different individuals and some luck. I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to “Streamline Teams”, and it was fun to look back at it all. Feel free to contact me at email@example.com if you have any questions about what we did or need any clarification.
Kevin T. Weldon
Coach Kevin Weldon is one of the Dayton region’s most experienced competition swim professionals. With 30 years leading the Dayton Raiders, Coach Kevin has developed:
* 30 Olympic Trials qualifiers (2 Top 8 Finalists)
* 4 National Age Group record holders
* 2 Senior National Champions
* 40 State High School Champions
* 12 Ohio State High School record holders
* 1000+ Swimmers who’ve competed in the Ohio High School State Meet
The 2018 International Swim Coach Association Hall of Fame inductee has also helped his swimmers acquire more than 1-Million-Dollars in athletic scholarships over the course of his career. Before coaching the Raiders, Coach Kevin was the head coach for the Sunkist Swim Team (1985-1989) and the KanKakee YMCA (1984-1985). He was also a University of Nebraska Men’s assistant coach (1981-1984). Coach Kevin hopes to provide a safe and positive sports experience for all Raider athletes, and the opportunity for each swimmer to achieve their full potential. The Dayton Raiders are a 3 time USA Swimming Gold Medal Level Club of Excellence under his leadership.