Two years ago, Zach Bell had no interest in pulling on Lycra swim trunks or competing against other swimmers.
But on March 6, 7 and 8, you’ll find the 14-year-old on the starting block alongside his New Castle YMCA Silver Sharks teammates, competing in the Western Pennsylvania YMCA Swim League District Championship at Penn State University’s McCoy Natatorium.
“I just love being in the water,” said Bell, the son of Julie Bell of Sharon, who now is comfortable in a pair of tight multicolored trunks and goggles. “When you’re in a race, you get focused in the zone. I’m just thinking, ‘I gotta beat this kid. I’ve gotta dive really far. I’ve gotta cut my time.’”
Bell and his teammates’ hard work this season has paid off, as the 73-member team went undefeated in their 15 regular-season meets and recently won the 2015 Northwest Conference Section A Championship at the Grove City YMCA. At that meet, the Silver Sharks beat out six teams, including the Grove City YMCA team, a AA team.
Anita Murphy, who is in her sixth year coaching the team, said 31 members of the team qualified for the district meet, in both individual and relay events.
“It’s a really big deal, mostly because we don’t feed into any high school, and so to keep the swimmers in the sport this long is pretty amazing,” Murphy said.
She said she attributes the team’s success to their work ethic.
“These kids work hard. They’re practicing two hours a day, five days a week from September ’til April, if they go to nationals,” she said. “Obviously they want to be here because it’s a huge commitment.”
David Miller, 14, a son of Michael and Shawna Miller of New Wilmington, said he, like Bell, is new to the sport. He said his mother, who swims on the Y’s Masters Swim Team, convinced him to try it last summer.
“Now all I want to do is to try to cut my time and be the best I can be,” said Miller, who was among the swimmers who qualified for district competition in the 100 and 200 freestyle and in the 4x200 freestyle relay. “This year I worked even harder and I qualified for districts, and so I’ve seen the hard work pay off.”
Joann Lamb has two sons and a daughter who swim on the team. Her 7-year-old son, Luke, is the youngest on the team to qualify for the district meet.
“It’s amazing to see the progress they can make,” said Lamb, who also acknowledged the competition can put a lot of pressure on the swimmers. “I just tell my kids to keep on swimming, and they keep doing better.”
Murphy, who is assisted by a group of seven volunteer coaches, said team members are driven to excel, both in beating their individual times and beating team records.
“It’s intrinsic for them. They like to do well,” Murphy added, pointing out that 98 percent of the team members were on the honor roll at their schools and several have participated in academic games nationally.
The team is comprised of students from “Ellwood to New Wilmington,” Murphy said, as well as several from Sharon and Slippery Rock. She estimates about 20 percent of the members are homeschooled.
“You can’t help but be moved by watching them cheer each other on,” said Lynise Massella, whose daughters, Maggie, 9, and Mollie, 7, are on the team. “They’ve really bonded, more so than any other year.
“My kids live outside the district but for them to make the connections they have says something about the team,” Massella continued. “They really share a passion for the sport and for one another.”