Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Meadowcreek head coach Dr. Anthony Rainge and his staff Kaylan Campbell, left, and Kristin Agostini, right, have helped rebuild the Mustangs swim team, both in numbers and in results.
High school glories tend toward exaggeration in their retelling. Like fish, opponents and crowds swell in size. Loud cheers become deafening roars. Full bleachers turn to standing room only. But truths lie latent below the hyperbole and bravado.
During this year's Gwinnett County Swim and Dive Championships, when the Meadowcreek swim team tore down school records of more than a decade, there were students piled into the stands and teammates littered on the pool deck at West Gwinnett Aquatic Center.
Sebastian Gomez, a senior originally from Colombia in his second year on the team and first leg of two record-setting relay teams, did shatter his goggles. Tears did stream down the faces of swimmers not on the relay, who were just happy for their teammates. Four school records, set in the late 1990s, did fall.
Senior John Nguyen set the school's 50 and 100 free records with times of 24.34 and 54.39 seconds.
The 200 free relay team of Gomez, Vienny Phi, Alberto Gonzalez and Nguyen set the new mark of 1 minute, 43.78 seconds and the 400 free relay team of Gomez, Elias Castro, Gonzalez and Nguyen lowed the record to 3:58.21.
But none of these record-setting marks qualified a single swimmer from Meadowcreek for the Class AAAAAA state meet. They weren't state records, but school records; dusty numbers on a board, set by students long since graduated, by swimmers long forgotten.
But yet here came the tears and cheers and jubilant destruction of equipment. Three years of practices, of recruiting, of lifting weights and running, of early morning bus rides, of laughs and pain were all condensed into this moment, now given glorious retellings. And it's a moment special to every person wearing Meadowcreek's Columbia blue who joined a swim team believing in what the head coach was selling, even if they couldn't execute a single stroke.
"It was family, man," head coach Anthony Rainge said. "They just came. We are a family."
Rainge took over the Mustangs' swim program for the 2010-11 season, answering an email asking for coaches. As a military child, Rainge swam growing up and recalls when the pools integrated in Oklahoma and he moved from rivers and creeks to clear, chlorinated water.
"I'm a water bug, I love the water," he said.
There were five swimmers left from the team the previous year, but by the start of that season he had 34 paid members. The next season, the team grew to 50 and this year it boasted 74. Include the swimmers who couldn't afford the $350 fee and that number balloons to 129.
"Some folks asked, 'Did you twist arms?' No. They've come," said Rainge, who credits a family atmosphere of "love and devotion" for the rapid uptick in interest.
A state qualifying diver in Raphael Ramirez the first season helped draw attention to the program, but mostly it's a willingness of Rainge and his now two assistant coaches, Kaylan Campbell and Kristin Agostini, to embrace every member no matter the skill level.
"We actually get in the water to teach them the fundamentals," Rainge said. "That helped with our numbers too, because we actually teach them how to swim."
The coaches use instructional lanes for new swimmers to prepare them for a full swim-team practice.
They learn proper stroke and breath technique. When some start, they can't swim one length of the pool, but by the end of the season no swimmer needed a modified practice.
"A lot of them did not (know how to swim)," said Campbell, a Providence graduate and high school swimmer who began assisting in Rainge's second season. "The lifeguards were on full alert that first day. Now they sit back, they know Meadowcreek is in the water and we are having a hard practice."
Meadowcreek gets 90 minutes in three lanes -- lanes 5, 6 and 7 -- for its practices and the entire team uses those lanes, there are no year-round swimmers at private practices freeing up space.
"It blows my mind every time I seen 10, 12 swimmers in a lane just going at it and going at it, not letting anything else distract them," said Agostini, a first-year assistant and former high school swimmer in Pennsylvania, who joined Rainge and Campbell this season.
The coaches use the pool deck, the Meadowcreek track and the weight room to maximize each member's ability, combining creativity with effort to overcome any obstacles. They run a good-cop, bad-cop routine with Agostini and Campbell the shouters and Rainge playing the more level-headed of the three. The girl swimmers force Campbell and Agostini to wear yellow flowers in their hair as a reminder to be "ladylike."
"We are a three-headed monster," Rainge said. "These two young ladies are just priceless. They are priceless.
"These are hardcore coaches, right here."
Their passion matches that of the program. With numbers rising after last season, Rainge decided to make his swimmers more than just students, but force them to be leaders. He always insisted on study halls and maintaining grades, but he asked his swimmers to get involved in other organizations.
"I got them together and I said, 'We are going to be the face (of Meadowcreek). I want all the offices,'" Rainge said. "Whatever club there was, we were in it."
Meadowcreek swimmers hold offices in student government for every grade level, they are members of Key Club, Moot Court, Mock Trial and the Hispanic Organization Promoting Education to name a few. They have team jackets that members, understanding the correlation between mimic and flattery, quickly point out the basketball team copied. Even out of season, the swimmers boast swim team sweatshirts at school.
"Everyone respects you," Gomez said. "They admire us."
Castro, who joined the team in Rainge's first season three years ago, half-jokingly takes credit for recruiting his friends.
"I brought them all on," he laughs before turning serious. "I feel really grateful to be part of a team like this and leave a legacy. Every year it gets bigger and bigger."
Kind of like that crowd at the county meet will each time the story is retold. That moment took more than 15 years to reach, but no one in this program plans on dust gathering on those names -- at least not a decade's worth.
"We'll break records next year," the junior Phi said.
Plans are already in place to recruit in the junior high and Rainge insists he'll come up with a solution to transportation issues keeping the willing from competing year-round. He hopes this is the last year the state meet goes without a Meadowcreek entrant.
"The sky is the limit," he said. "We've arrived."