The Chieftains promote a family atmosphere, one of the keys to success for the girls swim team.
VANCOUVER — They are at home in the swimming pool, at ease in the water, as long as they are together.
That is how the Columbia River Chieftains have defined their success this girls swimming season. Not just all the wins, and the potential for a strong finish at the state meet, but rather just how they treat each other.
“We bring everybody together into one large family,” said senior Makena Wilcox. “It doesn’t matter what kind of swimmer you are when you come to the Columbia River swim team. We’re just wanting to help everyone get better.”
And make sure everyone is welcome.
“When I first came to River, I didn’t know anybody,” said senior Meridien Duus, who moved to Vancouver from Salem toward the end of her junior year. “Now I have a lot more friends. I’ve got to know a lot of the girls. I’m really close to them now. I appreciate them.”
“It’s not club swimming,” added senior Kara Noftsker. “I don’t really know how to explain it. Just a very different environment. You really get to know each and every girl. You know the little kids (in club) but you don’t actually know who they are.”
The high school team, though, has a lot of meets in a short amount of time, Noftsker explained. The season is short, but the memories can last.
This season, the Chieftains are in the pool for practice before school — at 5:15 a.m. One really can appreciate friendship at that hour.
“You don’t really get used to it,” Wilcox said. “Sometimes I get up before my alarm, but I still don’t want to get out of bed.”
But the Chieftains do rise early, every day, because swimming means that much to them. And being part of the team means that much to them.
As swimmers from the region prepare for this week’s district championships, the Chieftains know they have a shot at doing something special in Class 2A. River went 12-2 in meets this season, with the only losses coming against Class 4A programs Camas and Union.
Columbia River coach Alyssa Manlow said one of the keys to the success has been that togetherness, not just the talent.
“It sounds super cheesy, but it’s how kind they are to each other,” Manlow said. “I’ve had comments from freshmen parents talking about how welcoming they thought the team was. I see it, but it’s good to hear from the parents.”
This is Manlow’s first season coaching the girls team at Columbia River. She took over a quality program. The Chieftains finished sixth at the Class 2A state meet in 2016. Noftsker finished second in two individual events. Wilcox made the finals in two events.
This is a new team, of course. The Chieftains are confident they can do some special things this season but are not putting any added pressure on themselves.
Manlow said she could see as many as eight Chieftains make it to state, via individual events, relays, and/or both. Joining Noftsker and Wilcox could be Duus, Sarah Ellis, Elizabeth Lujano, Michelle Kinney, Madisyn Morin, and Ayana Selzer.
“I want to bring as many girls as we possibly can,” Noftsker said. “We might not have the same people as last year, but we’re working hard and figuring out how to win.”
There is no set goal for the team to improve on last season’s sixth-place finish. Every year, every squad, is different.
“It’s my last state meet,” Wilcox said. “I just want to enjoy it more than stress out about the competition. Just improve on our personal times. It’s a new group, a new team this year. I just want to see what we can do.”
The state meet is Nov. 10 and 11 at the King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way.
For Wilcox and the Chieftains, it will be their last time together to swim together as a high school swim team.
But if the rest of the Chieftains the same attitude as Wilcox, swimming will always keep them together.
“I’m more of a water athlete than a land athlete,” Wilcox said. “Running and I don’t get along, but I can swim for hours. It calms my mind. I get great exercise. I feel refreshed.”
This season, all of the Chieftains were re-energized in the pool.
A family that swims together wins together.