The Ann Arbor Swimming Pipeline

Nov. 20, 2009

By Amy Whitesall

Swimmers from Ann Arbor Pioneer High School have been choosing the shortest distance to college -- across the street and around the corner -- since the University of Michigan women's swimming and diving program began in the mid-1970s. The long parade of Pioneers began with Laura Adamson in 1975 and extends through 2009 freshmen Val Barthelemy, Ashley Cohagen and Kristina Jaeger. But this year there are eight Pioneer grads on the Michigan women's team -- easily more than any other time in Jim Richardson's 25 years as head coach.

Is it something in the water? Well, yeah, of course. But it's not just the familiar pool that makes Michigan the right fit for so many Pioneers. High competitive standards, academic clout and the opportunity to be near home -- but just far enough away -- keep that pipeline open.

Shared values
In 2006, the Pioneer 400 freestyle relay team of Liz Koselka and Margaret Kelly and sisters Leigh and Kristyne Cole set a national record at the Michigan High School State championships. Today, all four swim for Michigan, along with fellow Pioneer grads Barthelemy, Jaeger, Cohagen and Carleigh Schwartz.

"When you get a Pioneer kid, you know they know how to train; you know they're dedicated; you know they've been put in pressure situations," said Michigan assistant coach Stefanie Kerska, herself a Pioneer graduate. "(Pioneer coach Denny) Hill is pretty notorious for not only preparing kids to swim well at the state meet but preparing them to swim well both days at the state meet. So you know when you have them train hard Monday-Friday then fly to Florida on the weekend to swim Florida and Stanford, they're going to perform."

The 400 freestyle relay of Liz Koselka, Margaret Kelly, Kristyne Cole and Leigh Cole broke the national high school record at the 2006 Michigan state meet in Ypsilanti.

Leigh Cole and Margaret Kelly were seniors on that record-setting 400 free relay team, wrapping up high school careers that included multiple All-America honors, two national record relay performances, four state championships and three mythical high school national championships. But it was not until they got to Michigan and talked to teammates who had never won a high school dual meet, or were the only year-round swimmer on their team, that they began to fully appreciate the Pioneer program's tradition and high standards.

"We realize now how fortunate we were to be part of that," said Kelly, now a U-M senior and a five-time collegiate All-American.

Years ago, former U-M executive associate athletic director Fritz Seyferth, now a corporate team building consultant, studied the Michigan football program to identify keys to organizational success. He also worked with Pioneer's swim teams, and found some common threads.

"It was things like the idea that you represent your school, your family and your teammates, and how you do that is important," Hill said. "It stems from Bo Schembechler -- the family type thing where you swim for your brothers and sisters. There's a right way and a wrong way to do things, and when you see your brother or sister doing something the wrong way, you tell them."

Comfort zone
Club Wolverine, the offseason swim program that soaks up some of the best swimmers in 100-mile radius of Ann Arbor, is a natural feeder for U-M.

True, not every college-bound swimmer in "C-dub" chooses Michigan, but the club puts them all in the water together and creates an accessible, familiar atmosphere. Club Wolverine swimmers have the chance to work as timers at the collegiate meets, and both Leigh Cole and Margaret Kelly seized that opportunity from middle school on.

Jim Richardson and Stefanie KerskaKristyne Cole

"We'd see people from Dexter and Huron that we swam with in the offseason," Cole said. "We'd time their meets and then change into our suits and have practice."

But familiarity is not always a coach's friend.

"The old saying is 'familiarity breeds contempt'." Richardson said. "I think at the very least familiarity to some extent can work against you when you try to recruit people who've been training in your pool. You know them and they know you. It's not new or different or exciting, and those things can work against us in recruiting someone."

That's exactly what happened with Kerska, yet another Pioneer swimmer who ended up at Michigan. Coming out of high school Kerska thought "going to college" meant going away, and she enrolled at the University of Virginia.

"I lasted a whopping semester, and then I called Jon Urbanchek, who was the men's coach here at the time, and said, 'I'm coming home. I've got to find a way to get into Michigan," she said.

"(When you grow up here) you don't go to campus very often," Kerska added. "When I take those kids who are from this area around campus, a lot of times they haven't been to these places before. They may know Ann Arbor, but they don't know our campus. They see there is a different part of college. And actually, it's really nice to go home, throw a load of laundry in the wash, grab some canned goods and a gallon of milk and be gone before your parents even realize you were there."

Big Blue
And then there's the sheer Michigan momentum of growing up in Ann Arbor.

Kelly comes from a family of hardcore Michigan fans. Her parents used to dress her in a little cheerleader outfit and take the family to U-M basketball games. She was so young that her own memory of it is built from vague recollection fleshed out by family legend and old photos.

Leigh ColeMargaret Kelly

When Leigh Cole was in second grade, former Michigan sprinter and backstroker Melisa Stone student-taught at her elementary school. Stone took the awestruck Cole sisters to their very first U-M swim meet at Canham Natatorium.

"I felt like I was watching the Olympics, they were so fast," Leigh said.

Growing up amid the tradition, they imagined representing Michigan themselves -- and being able to do it in front of family and friends.

"I think I kind of always had in the back of my head that it would be neat to swim for Michigan," said Kelly, who took only one other recruiting trip -- to Georgia -- because she'd heard Athens was a lot like Ann Arbor. It turns out there's no place like home.

"Michigan is a great school, and I think being so close to home made it the right fit. Why go somewhere else?"