There’s nothing that excites Flowery Branch swim coach Valerie Lancaster more that the impending start of the swimming season each year, but seven years ago, this kind of excitement wasn’t even a figment in her mind.
Lancaster started the program in 2006 with just two swimmers after a student at Flowery Branch expressed interest in continuing the sport she had been competing in her entire life.
“We had a young lady who was basically the reason why we started it,” Lancaster said. “She really wanted to swim for her high school. They looked for about a year for someone who could be the teacher representative and crossed me one day, and I was like ‘Absolutely, I’ll do it!’”
So, Lancaster, who also didn’t have the opportunity to swim for her high school until her senior year, seized the chance to advance a sport she is passionate about.
This season, after years of developing the team and cultivating local swimmers, Lancaster’s Lady Falcons won their seventh-straight county title and the boys team finished in second place.
For her efforts, Lancaster is The Times Swimming Coach of the Year.
When she piloted the program, Lancaster spent most of the season trying to figure out how to run the program since her swimmers were somewhat experienced, but every year after that, the program has found its way and become more popular with the students at Flowery Branch.
“The second year was working out the kinks,” she said. “The third year it began doubling, now we average about 38-42 each year.”
Of the swimmers on her team, 20-25 are girls on average, giving the Lady Falcons depth along with talent.
“Our girls are very strong swimmers,” Lancaster said. “We don’t really have any weak swimmers because we are constantly building, so at the end of the year we have 18 girls where I can say, ‘Okay, who wants to swim in what?’ and I can do that with confidence.”
The Flowery Branch boys swimmers are also talented, so Lancaster doesn’t believe that lack of skill is what prevents them from winning competitive team events because they see success individually.
“The difference between our girls and our boys is that our boys are super fast, but we don’t have a lot of them,” Lancaster said. “It’s hard in a football school to get boys to see that swimming is a sport.”
For the future, Lancaster plans on working with the Flowery Branch cross country coaches to see if any of the runners would be interested in swimming to train during the offseason instead of always running, even if they’re unfamiliar with the water.
“We’re going to try and build the team,” she said. “A majority of our swimmers start out as kids who have never really participated in athletic events, so we start teaching them strokes, technique, and other things, and then they turn into year-round swimmers.
“We teach all year long to all of our swimmers that you may not know what you’re doing right now, but at the end of the year, you’re going to be so proud of what you’ve done.”
The team is especially proud of this season because Flowery Branch sent the girls team to state for the first time in history, and Lancaster also had some of her boys swimmers compete in individual state events. To prepare her teams for the caliber of swimmers they would face in the state tournament, Lancaster started the season by adding more competitive meets to the schedule.
“This year, we swam against more competitive teams instead of staying around Frances Meadows (Aquatic Center),” Lancaster said. “Our girls got to see more competition, so they saw what they needed to do to really compete.
“We pushed them harder than we ever have, and we added in land workouts this year. Our girls and boys were definitely stronger this year. We had a lot of times drop.”
Lancaster is dedicated to the program for the foreseeable future and plans to increase focus on individual swimmers to help each person succeed.
“I would like to see more individuals at the state level,” she said. “As a team we can compete, but we have to get those individual times lower. We want to see more than our boys competing at state at the individual level, so we will try to work on more individualized practicing and take a look at how we structure practice so we can get more swimming in.”
Lancaster loves swimming and coaching, but she finds some of her gratification in helping her athletes become healthy and happy.
“It’s awesome to know that you kind of help someone to get some kind of gratification out of something,” she said. “That’s one thing about swimming is its something you can do for the rest of your life.”