Still relatively new, Rangers making a splash

Photos by Brittney Lohmiller/The Herald
Forest Park freshman Magda Alvis, left, splashed sophomore Josie Berg after she finished a lap during a Wednesday evening swim practice at Southridge High School. Forest Park’s swim team is comprised of Berg, Alvis, Abby Hauser, Mayson VanMeter and Ben Kluesner. This is the first time in 18 years that the Rangers have had a full swim team.

By JONATHAN SAXON
jsaxon@dcherald.com

It’s not uncommon for schools across the county to have scores of athletes competing at local swim meets. But, one school stands out from the rest. Forest Park High School’s team has five members — four girls and one boy — and two of the girls never even swam before this season.

But none of that stuff matters to them. For the Rangers, it’s about slapping on the swim cap, tightening up those goggles, and showing fans that Forest Park, after an 18-year absence, has returned to the water.

“Forest Park had a couple of swimmers in the early 2000s,” said Rangers swim coach Rachel Berg. “We just want to bring awareness to swimming, and let people know that it’s an option. We have basketball and dance in the winter for girls, but other than that we don’t have a lot of other options.”

While Forest Park has a team for the first time in nearly two decades this season, last year was technically their first dip back into the pool. Although for sophomore Josie Berg, it was a season spent by her lonesome.

“I’ve been swimming since sixth grade, and I swam SARG (Southridge Aquatic Raider Gators) in middle school,” she said. “I always swam for Southridge in middle school, because we don’t have a pool. Once I got to high school, I couldn’t swim for Southridge, so I just swam for Forest Park that year.”

Berg said it was a different and strange experience being the lone representative from Ferdinand, but she eventually got used to it. Because Forest Park does not have a pool, she had to practice with the SARG teams at Southridge High School. And there were times that she swam junior varsity, in which case she would be the only person swimming in the pool. But, Berg endured and made it through that lonely season, buoyed by the thought of other swimmers joining her the following year.

She knew that her friends Magda Alvis and Ben Kluesner, who both had prior swimming experience, would join her on the team. But they still didn’t have enough individuals for a relay team. So Josie took her recruiting efforts from the water to dry land, bringing fellow sophomores Abbie Hauser and Mayson VanMeter from the cross country team.

“(Josie) was talking about it, and I did play basketball (in the winter),” said Hauser. “But I thought swimming would help me more with cross country, so I thought I’d give it a try this year.”

“They were looking for people to join and they convinced me to join,” added VanMeter, who also initially looked at it as a way to improve herself as a runner, but soon discovered a genuine interest in swimming. “I wanted to do it because of cross country, but then I was like, ‘This is fun.’ I’m going to keep doing it for a long time. It’s really fun, I love it.”

Both girls said they do not regret their decision to put on their swim caps. Hauser and VanMeter were familiar with the competitive nature of Berg and Alvis from their days of running together in the fall, so they figured if they can take the same attitude and apply it to different strokes in the water, nothing but good things would come from it.

“I’ve competed with all of these girls before and I knew that we all would work really hard and do the best we could,” Hauser said. “I didn’t have any doubts about that at all.”

“There’s just so much spirit with us, we’re just optimistic about everything,” VanMeter said. “We have each other’s backs. So if one of us was nervous, the others would try to pick us up and help us not feel so intimidated by the bigger teams.”

The hard part for the girls was not the mental stress of facing bigger teams in the pool. The real challenge came when it was time to pick up new physical and athletic skills as they applied to racing in the water as opposed to terra firma.

“It was really hard to get into swimming because I was so used to running and being able to breathe whenever I wanted to,” VanMeter said. “I get in the water and I can’t even do a (full lap) without gasping for air at the end.”

Swim coach Rachel Berg, center, talked with the team during Wednesday’s practice.

For Hauser, she had to put her pride aside and learn how to get accustomed to moving and functioning in the water. She was hard on herself initially, because she doesn’t like to feel like she has fallen behind her peers in competitive endeavors. But eventually, Hauser got in the swing of things and started to feel tangible progress.

“So I had to work a lot harder than I was expecting to get where I wanted to be,” she said. “It’s been really rewarding seeing my times drop and knowing that all the hard work that I’ve put in has paid off.”

VanMeter too had to overcome her initial feelings of discouragement and disappointment that come with picking up a new sport. But for her, that only made progress feel that much better.

“I was like, ‘I can’t do this. This is going to be too hard.’ But I kept going and eventually I got better,” she said. “I think the most rewarding part was learning what I was good at. When I started doing all the different strokes, I found out I was really good at butterfly.”

Rachel said it has been a pleasure to see the team get better over the course of the season. The coach describes the swimmers as competitive and coachable, willing to do exactly as they’re instructed to sharpen technique and get better in the pool.

“They’re beasts when it comes to working hard,” she said. “They all know how to get in there and do what they have to do to work hard. You see so much improvement, with flip turns and streamlines, it has clicked and they’re doing it. Abbie (Hauser) took 10 seconds off of her 100 freestyle (time) at PAC, which is amazing.”

Rachel is also proud of how her team has been able to move past what they don’t have, in terms of team size or infrastructure, and their willingness to make some sacrifices so Forest Park could return to the water.

“It’s really the dedication on the kids’ part,” she said. “We can’t swim right after school, because that’s when Southridge swims. We have to wait until 5:30 to come over. Friday nights swimming until 7:30 or 8 is not the ideal thing kids want to do on a Friday night. But they’re dedicated and have been real good about doing it when they have to.”

She also said that community support for the swim team has played an integral part in allowing them to do what they do: the SARG team opened their pool time to the Forest Park team so they can practice and the Tri-County YMCA in Ferdinand has allowed them to use their equipment for dry land workouts. Forest Park Athletic Director Doug Louden has also worked out an arrangement so the Rangers can piggyback off of Southridge’s meet schedule and compete against other schools.

All of that has brought Forest Park to sectionals. The girls preliminaries start at 6:30 p.m. tonight at Jasper High School, and the finals will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday. Sectional prelims for the boys won’t start until Feb. 15.

Rachel said the team is excited for sectionals and will continue to go out and compete to the best of their abilities against the bigger teams. They may not be able to win the whole thing on overall points, but they can still go out and finally put to rest a question they have heard all season long: So Forest Park has a swim team?

“Our goal as a team is to get everybody to finals on Saturday,” Rachel said. “That’s where we’d like to be, and I think they are all very capable and ready to do that.”




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