Under steady leadership, Jefferson swimming participation swells
ON ONE hand, it’s no surprise that the Jefferson Sea Dragon swim program has soared in popularity.
It’s summer. There’s a pool. There’s kids. The participation rate has spiked accordingly. The team had 53 swimmers in its inception in 2006. Now, it expects 125 swimmers this summer.
“Anytime you can mix a whole lot of kids and water, you’re going to have a naturally attractive product … The kids absolutely love it,” Jefferson Parks and Recreation director Colton Green said.
But traditional summertime aquatic beckoning can only carry you so far. That so many kids now call themselves Sea Dragons – and keep coming back every year – is a testament to the program’s leadership, Green said.
“You can probably attribute an 150 percent increase to a lot of things,” Green said. “But, honestly, the biggest thing is just the quality of the program. A lot of that goes back to (Sea Dragon president) Chad (Klinck)’s hard work and the quality of the coaching.”
Entering season no. 6, the program – started by former Jefferson Rec director Ben Dillard in 2006 – is headed by Klinck and UGA graduate assistant Matthew Grant, who coaches the squad. Klinck’s level of administrative commitment constitutes almost another fulltime job. Meanwhile, Grant’s expertise is impressive, having worked with renowned UGA coach Jack Bauerle, who’s captured four national titles and served as an Olympic swimming coach.
There are others, too, on the scene. Kim Navas, Gabrielle Joransen and Brad Watkins all assist, and Jefferson added another coach, former UGA swimmer Tess Nunnally, to the fold this year to help accommodate the growing number of Jefferson swimmers.
Green said the swim program’s retention rate is now a staggering 80 to 85 percent, the highest of any of Jefferson’s recreation programs. That’s a point of pride for the squad.
“Especially in a sport that requires as much commitment as swimming does,” Green said. “When you’re practicing three times a week and you’ve got meets nearly every weekend, that’s a lot of commitment. Especially during a time of year when most families want to de-commit from things.”
‘A LOT OF SUPPORT’
Coach Matthew Grant rarely goes anywhere that doesn’t involve a pool between his job with UGA’s swimming program, the Athens Bulldog Swim Club and work with Olympic swimmers recently to write his dissertation for his PhD. But he takes as much joy from his work with the Sea Dragons as any.
“I run the gamut with swimming,” Grant said. “And I tell you this, I have as much fun here (with the Sea Dragons) as I do with the UGA team. Because Jefferson is a great place to coach. And the reason for it is one, the kids are good, the parents understand sports. It’s like the Sparta of sports. There’s a lot of support.”
Grant is now in his fifth season in Jefferson and said the recreation department “does a bang-up job” in finding him the resources to coach the Sea Dragons.
“I’ve worked with summer league teams before, and I’ve never had this much support or this much success,” he said.
As for the numbers, Grant believes the growth of the program lies in its mission: not just learning how to swim, but how to swim competitively in a safe, fun atmosphere.
“We really focus on the fun of it,” Grant said. “The first couple years, the turnover was almost 50 percent. Now the turnover is if they’re moving or if they go into year-round swimming.”
And many of those year-round swimmers are getting to where they don’t move on. While they join their club teams the rest of the year, many are coming back to swim for Jefferson in the summer. That speaks volumes Green said.
“They come back in the summer to swim for us because of our coaching,” Green said. “That’s really a benefit. That’s really one of the things that makes us competitive at the state level, to have those kids who are in your community and go to school in Jefferson and live in Jackson County come back to your summer program because of what you’re offering.”
Which certainly bodes well for the Sea Dragons’ future plans. Jefferson’s goal is to continue to provide a competitive recreational swimming program for all athletes and ages. But there’s a broader vision behind the Sea Dragons: To become a potential feeder system for Jefferson High School should it ever one day add a swimming program to its athletic department.
The team wants to provide a stable of able swimmers ready to hit the pool for the high school Dragons.
“The feeder system is there, the roots are there, and they’re not going to be starting from nothing,” Green said of the idea. “We would essentially have all these kids who have swam since they were 5 and 6 years old moving into a high school program and be ready for competitions at the high school programs.”