Commentary

Community key in swimming success

Updated: January 20, 2009, 8:46 PM ET
By Matt Pepin | Special to ESPNRise.com

The math just didn't look good.

No matter how many times Ed Aston compared his swimmers to theirs, examining the times his girls had posted and the times of the girls they were up against, it was fairly evident this could be the one.

This could be where it ends.

In a way, it would have been fitting if it was indeed Acton-Boxborough that ended the 21-year streak of Connecticut's Cheshire High girls' swim team, a magnificent run of 253 head-to-head swim meets without a loss.

Acton-Boxborough had its chance, a decade before, to never let it get this far. If only Acton-Boxborough, widely considered a powerhouse of girls' swimming in Massachusetts, had won that day in 1998, Cheshire's streak would have never reached the legendary proportions it now enjoys.

It might have been recorded somewhere as a pretty nice streak, and another one likely would have started the next time Cheshire High plunged into the water.

But taking on Acton-Boxborough appealed to Aston on so many levels. It stoked his competitive fire. It could be a signature win, elevating a program that had become dominant throughout Connecticut to a more regional reputation.

"I'd read about them in Swimmer's World, or maybe Sports Illustrated," said Aston, who has coached Cheshire for 34 years. "They had a record of like 181-1, and we called them and said we want to come swim you. Finally they agreed."

Cheshire showed up with the swagger and confidence that not only defines it to this day, but also rubs a lot of people the wrong way, including some within the Cheshire swim community.

"We went up there and buried them," Aston said.

Fast-forward to Oct. 23, 2008. It's senior night, and Cheshire's final dual meet of the season. Aston found himself on the deck of the Cheshire Community Pool staring across from another Acton-Boxborough team. This time, it was Action-Boxborough that had visions of toppling a juggernaut. It had given Cheshire its shot back then, and now it wanted a return favor.

"They didn't come down here to lose, I'll tell you that," Aston said.

"You could say that," Acton-Boxborough coach Jeff Johnson agreed.

Only thing is, that's when Cheshire is at its best. Swimmers take defense of the streak personally. Any challenge only serves to fuel them, in practice as well as meets.

"On paper, they looked phenomenal. We were really nervous," said Sam Loignon, a senior team captain this season. "I remember in my head, in the practice before, thinking like, what am I going to say to these girls if we were to lose?

"And I just remember saying 'It's not going to end now. There's no reason why we can't beat them.' And it's true every year. The seniors are like, it's not going to end in our hands. I think that's why the program is the way it is."

Cheshire demolished Acton-Boxborough that night, winning 127-57, a score more like the ones Cheshire posts against its conference and state rivals than one you'd expect at a showdown of closely matched teams. In many races, Cheshire swimmers posted their best times of the season.

"Every year, the seniors always say that the streak gets handed down to them, and that they don't want to be the ones to walk out of here with a loss," Loignon said. "And there are a lot of things that we do to make it really clear to these girls that when you get here, you'll feel the same way."

Swimming has come to define Cheshire, which has had more than its share of sports success. The high school football team holds the state record for consecutive wins (49 from 1992-96) and has won six consecutive state championships in that span. The banners in the school's gym boast of many more conquests.

Yet swimming is what town manager Michael A. Milone hears about when he travels about the state. Countless families have made a commitment to the program, giving, in addition to their daughters, massive amounts of time, energy, money and support.

The parents of team captains organize pasta suppers and open their homes to the entire team. A group of 40 or more Cheshire supporters will descend upon an unsuspecting restaurant after state meets. They hold golf tournaments, backyard barbecues and other social events.

They come from all walks of life. Auto repairmen, insurance adjusters, car salesmen, social workers, vice presidents. Their common ground is chlorinated water.

"Every girl has 100 parents," said Buck Novak, who has had three daughters, Cassie, Sarah and Catherine, swim through the program.

"It's a lifestyle that we've all agreed to accept," said Tony Cipriano, an attorney whose daughter Chelsea was a swim team captain who graduated in 2005. But he still attends nearly every meet to shoot video and cheer for the team.

"Once you're a part of the culture, you're a part of it for life," Cipriano said.

Traditions are family things, and many sets of sisters have been part of Cheshire's streak. Many swimmers return frequently, showing up at practice to help Aston coach, or just to watch, or to speak with the current team.

In fact, on Oct. 15, 2007, the night Cheshire broke the national high school record for consecutive dual-meet victories, more than 60 former swimmers returned to watch the Rams defeat Branford and break Elkhart Central High of Indiana's record of 234 from 1980-94. (Ironically, the Cheshire record has yet to be documented in the National Federation of High Schools record book because it wasn't reported in time to be included in the 2008 edition, which includes the 2007-08 school year).

Aston hasn't yet had a mother-daughter combination as part of the streak, although he's had five mother-daughter combos in his tenure, which began in 1973, the same year he started the high school swim program.

"The two characteristics that you really see when someone has this type of streak is a strong tradition to connect to, and you usually see what I would call a sense of community within the team," said Becky Oaks, who is the assistant director of the National Federation of High Schools and also its liaison for swimming.

Of course, when it comes right down to it, the streak is about winning races, and while lots of teams can boast that they're a family and they've got great chemistry and they despise losing and they work really hard, Cheshire has two other things going for it. Its swimmers train almost as much as Olympians, and Aston is a master at motivating them.

Aston schedules practices six days a week. Sometimes two a day. Sometimes he even schedules a practice in the afternoon before a night meet.

"The meets are the easy part," Aston said. "The girls love the meets."

Loignon can't argue that. "I kept track of how many yards we did in practice. We did about, on average, 7,500 yards a day, six days a week, and it totaled over 475,000 yards [in the season]. Which is almost 275 miles," she said.

By comparison, Olympic hero Michael Phelps reportedly trains six to seven days a week, logging 80,000 meters per week. Cheshire's totals are at about half that, but then again, Cheshire's swimmers also have homework.

Aston's diabolical training regimen isn't designed just to produce the winner of each race at a meet, either. No, it's the second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-place spots he covets as well, because he knows that getting as many swimmers to the touch pad ahead of the other school means more points on Cheshire's side of the scoreboard.

That's partly why Aston gets complete buy-in from the swimmers who last beyond the first few practices, the ones he designs expressly to weed out the weak. He explains to his swimmers they don't have to be the fastest in the race. Be fast enough to beat someone on the other team.

Heaven forbid you get "the look," says Sarah Novak, who was the middle of three sisters to swim for Aston. More than once she was on the receiving end of one of Aston's laser-like stares that expressed his displeasure with her effort in practice.

"Ed is a master motivator," Novak said. "If he looks at you like that, you know you've got to work harder to get where he wants you to be."

His words of encouragement compel the swimmers to put in the extra time, the extra laps, the effort to be good enough to contribute points at each meet.

"He has a unique style," said Cheshire athletic director Steve Trifone. "They respect what he asks."

Aston rarely mentions the streak unless asked, and although he's clearly proud of it, he relishes the spirit of the team, the camaraderie of the pool deck and the satisfaction of what he's created in Cheshire just as much.

He knows someday the streak will end. But …

"The next day the sun's going to come up," Aston said, "and we'll be right back at practice."

Matt Pepin is sports editor at Varsity845.com.