VAST opportunities await young swimmers

With the endless cycle of changing sports seasons swirling around them, members of the Vermillion Area Swim Team (VAST) enjoy the predictability of it all.

While classmates who are involved in other sports have completed basketball and gymnastics, and are gearing up for track and field or golf, the VAST participants know there will always be yet another practice awaiting them at the DakotaDome's indoor pool.

There will always be a chance to improve their swimming technique. To better master a particular stroke. To maybe swim just a bit faster.

And, most importantly, to continue to have fun.

VAST follows the guidelines of United States Swimming, the national governing body for competitive swimming nationwide. The local swimmers compete during a winter season which begins in September and will end later this month. VAST's summer season will begin in mid-April, and will wrap up at the end of August.

"Since things are winding down, we can take time to work with the younger kids and the new kids a bit more than before," said Mike Moran, the head coach of VAST. "They are going to get a break then until mid-April, and then everyone is going to start over new again. That's really nice."

Youth in the Vermillion area who think they might enjoy being a member of VAST are welcome to simply show up at the first practice of the summer season, scheduled for April 19.

There are only two meets remaining in VAST's winter season, but both are significant. The team will participate in the Short Course State Championship in Aberdeen March 5 through 7. They will then travel to the Midwest Regionals in Minneapolis, MN.

"In the winter season, there has to be at least 10 meets that are available for the swimmers," Mike said. "And, it's strictly optional. There are kids that have not gone to meets yet, and the kids who are first-time swimmers, and decide to go to a meet– they always have a blast.

"Some of the kids think swimming in a meet is going to be really scary, and when they finally do it, they discover that it's really not that bad," he said.

Moran has been the head coach of VAST since September 2009. He directs a team made up of 32 young people, ranging in age from 5 to 18.

This year, the team has grown, and someday, Mike would like to see up to 40 or 50 young people from the region compete in VAST.

"I think we can in this community, because a lot of people just don't know about us. They think it's something that they have to try out for, and it's really not," Mike said.

Some of the young people who participate in VAST may have experience swimming competitively on other teams. And some had barely gotten their feet wet before joining the team.

"It doesn't matter. We work with everybody," he said. "We have kids that jump in the water, that have never been swimming before, or maybe some that have just completed swimming lessons, and we show them how to swim."

Typically during a practice of the VAST team, held at the indoor pool at the DakotaDome, Mike is a constant presence, shouting encouragement and directions, giving instant feedback when he spots a swimmer who needs to improve a stroke or a technique.

And, there are the drills. On Monday night, Mike instructed his swimmers, at one instance, to swim the length of the pool at a moderate rate, but to finish their lap by pushing themselves to swim as fast as they could. The sessions may have a been a bit more intense, with the state meet scheduled over the weekend.

VAST usually practices for an hour, from 7 to 8 p.m., Mondays through Thursdays. The team also gathers at the DakotaDome pool Sunday evenings, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.

The oldest members of the team – those of high school age – usually stay in the water for two hours each night of VAST's practice schedule.

Swimming is a sport that demands a degree of discipline. But, Mike recognizes that the true purpose of VAST is not to have young people win as many heats as possible, or come home from meets clutching as many trophies as they can.

He simply wants his kids to be at their best when they enter the water. So, he cajoles them to perfect each stroke. He asks that they work hard, to be in the best shape possible.

He also makes sure to not become so overzealous that he takes away all of the fun that his young athletes deserve to experience.

"At VAST, the goal is not really winning. It's about getting better, about improving, and about having fun. It really is. If you improve and you have fun, then we're doing a great thing.," Mike said. "And I really think that is happening. Our kids go to meet after meet, and they are just happy.

"The majority our kids are in the age range of between 9 and 12 years old," he said. "And so, the goal is developing them fundamentally in technique, stroke work, all of that kind of stuff. It's not so much on winning. That's the focus right now, and that's okay."

Susan Hackemer was at the DakotaDome pool Monday, watching her daughter, Anna, go through her paces in the water. She is happy that Anna decided to become a member of the team.

"I think it's because of the regular exercise, and it's basically a year-round sport," Susan said. "There are a couple of short breaks but you basically are swimming all year round. The kids practice two, three, four times a week, so I think they learn that value of regular exercise.

Anna has been swimming a VAST member for two years.

"For my swimmer, I know that she prefers this kind of competition," Susan said. "You are part of a team, but you're mostly competing against yourself. It gives her, I think, a feeling of a bit more independence, rather than being on show in front of everybody and competing. It fits her temperment and personality really well.

"She's always loved to swim, and I had suggested that she try the swim time a couple times," she added. "But they had a fun meet in April two years ago, and she came to that with a couple of friends and just loved it, and has been a regular participant ever since."

Susan enjoys the fact that swimming, participants, including her daughter, can set their own individual goals that help not only the team, but also themselves.

"They are taught how to perfect this sport, to work on this, but then they are able to go out and work on it on their own, too, rather than having somebody right there," Susan said. "And the whole competition isn't based on whether you made the goal or the basket, or didn't, or whether your actions affect if your team won or lost a game."

Both Susan and Anna have discovered a bonus to the VAST experience.

"It's amazing how much camaraderie you can have in just three minutes at the end of the pool," Susan said.  

John Smith sat outside of the pool Monday, watching the VAST team practice through the large glass wall near the facility's door. His 10-year-old daughter, Lexi, was splashing in the water. She's been a member of VAST since she was 6.

"We had an apartment behind Super 8, and when she was 5, she liked to go swimming, and she didn't know how to swim, so I just told her to kick her legs, and that's how she got started," John said. "Then we brought her here (to VAST) and they gave her a tryout, and they worked with her on the strokes, and she's been involved with it ever since."

Swimming has become an important part of her daughter's life, he said.

"She likes it – we have to put the reigns on her sometimes – she would go every day if she could. We have to kind of hold her back some, except for this week. This week is a big week.

"I thought it would be a phase that would only last for a little while, but she really likes it and she's sticking with it," John said. "She makes a lot of friends, and she has fun doing this. She has three other friends on the team that she's really tight with, and now they swim together on a relay team. That's pretty good. It's an individual sport, and she likes that, but she's a competitor, too. I think that's why she likes swimming in the relays."

Jennifer Martinez watched her daughter Madison, 10, go through her paces in the pool.

"This will be her third year on the team," Jennifer said. "A couple of her friends were swimming for VAST and she wanted to try it, and that's how it began for her.

"We came out and did the tryout, and she fell in love it with it," she said. "She's very competitive, so she really likes it. It keeps in her shape, too – she also plays soccer and basketball. It all helps keep her fit year-round."

Jennifer is happy that her daughter has chosen swimming as part of the mix of athletic activities she enjoys.

"It's fun, and you can do it all year round, both indoor and outdoor," she said. "I thought it would be a phase – that she might just do this for a short time, but she gets to meet all of these high school girls that are on the team, and she's made some pretty good friends with those older kids. I think she can see herself swimming (on VAST) until she's at least as old as they are."

"Swimming is a life-long sport, and it's so good to give kids an opportunity to have regular exercise at such a young age, and they keep doing it as they grow older," Mike said. "Some of the kids stay active in the sport through high school, and compete as swimmers when they go off to college. That's pretty neat."

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