By Brian Weaver
It sounds like you’re walking up to the line of scrimmage.
“Give me a 200, blue-red-green-pink.”
But look around, and you won’t see any linebackers. There’s no grass, no field. All you’ll find here is the humid air of a pool, thick with the scent of chlorine, and a group of girls who have spent the last three months pounding any competition that comes their way.
It’s a swim practice at Council Rock’s new, state-of-the-art facility, and the color-code system is the biggest reason why one of the top swim teams in the Suburban One League stands on the threshold of the conference meets with a thunderous 12-0 record.
Council Rock North, which finished the regular season last Tuesday with 110-74 drumming of Upper Moreland, has stood above the competition every step of the way. The ladder the Indians climbed to this perfect mark comes courtesy of strong rungs. A new training system, a dedicated coach, and an unbreakable team bond have all been steps on the way to this season
Oh- and 1980s-style clothes and hair. But more on that later.
At the start of the season, head coach Ted Scheuller sat the team down.
“We looked at the way the new divisions changed around and said we can take this if we work hard and just take one meet at a time,” he explains. “Half of my girls are club kids with me, and all the other non-club kids have been working just as hard. They stayed in the water over the summer.”
But just being in the water wasn’t enough for Scheuller. His team needed something to put them over the edge, that one last burst to help them touch the wall faster.
He found it on a wall in a swim club.
It was a rainbow-colored sheet that caught the coach’s eye. It was a training program that runs on a color spectrum, each color indicating a different speed, heart rate, and exercise for the swimmer. Starting with white at the lowest, warm-up/cool-down level, the speeds build in intensity from pink to red to blue to purple to green to yellow as top speed.
Swimmer Alex Minsky jokes, “The color of the work is the color of your face. You start out pale, white, but by the end…”
The idea of the color spectrum training program comes from Jim Richardson at the University of Michigan – the same place a guy named Phelps trained for a stretch.
“We saw it up on the board at the Main Line YMCA,” Scheuller recalls. “We started incorporating it at our practices at Trihampton [the club where Scheuller coaches and a dozen of his swimmers compete in the offseason], just with our distance swimmers, and this past summer we incorporated it at all our practices and ended up taking 29 of our swimmers to nationals. I thought that if we understand it and do it the way it’s supposed to be done we’re really going to do well with it.”
The workout covers aerobic, anaerobic, threshold, and various other levels. The girls might swim all red one day, white-pink the next, blue-purple after that… It may sound like a twisted new terror alert chart for Homeland Security, but the only terrorist this system has bred is a clock that keeps stopping sooner and sooner, giving opponents plenty of fodder for their nightmares.
North swimmers have responded well. A quick survey of the team sounds like the back of a DVD case:
I like it. I think it helps me go the speed that I want to be at that whole day. – Emily Demarest
I don’t know how to describe it. You know when to go faster and when to go slower, and it definitely helps out with practice in helping to organize it better. – Haley Hentzel
It gives us that ability to make the last push you need in a race. – Katie Millen
“The girls love it, and their bodies and their technique have taken so well to it,” second-year assistant Annmarie Errico, a former Council Rock swimmer under Scheuller, elaborates. “They grasp and understand more what they’re supposed to be doing. A white-pink-red-blue they know means easy, harder, a little harder, and very hard. They know exactly what speed they should be and where.”
The precision of the color system leaves no doubt about how hard the girls should be working every step of the way. They know exactly how fast their heart should be beating, how the strokes should feel, and their speed each lap. It eliminates the opportunity to slack off, which – while a bit of a shock for some at first – has allowed the girls to work every second from their first jump off the blocks until they climb out of the water.
“A couple of girls when we first started said it was a hard set, but they liked it,” Errico said. “They know exactly when rest is coming. Some of the ones who usually are not happy about practice have come around to it.”
The whole team has come around to the new system. Of course, part of that owes to the fact that Scheuller knows the drills and intensities so well that they’re afraid to slack off lest he hear them. They feel the coach has a sixth sense.
“It forces you to work hard in practice because if you’re not following it, he can tell,” Andi Phayre says.
Demarest laughs, totally agreeing.
“[Other swimmers] said Ted can hear the sound of the water,” she said. “I don’t know if they’re making that up.”
They’re not. The color guru readily admits that he knows what’s going on every second that he’s on the deck.
“I don’t even have to turn around, I can tell by the sound of the water where they’re at, the energy level,” he said. “I can say, ‘Oh, we’re on red right now.’”
But he doesn’t say that menacingly. It’s always with a smile, a smile that represents the complete attitude of the team. The girls buttress their towering success with a foundation of unshakeable friendship. They make the occasional Red Robin run, have sleepovers as a team, and generally defy any expectations Errico has of the typical big-group-of-girls dynamic.
“They definitely get along great, and for forty girls to get along great…that’s not very often!” she said. “It’s great to see.”
“They’re like 35 sisters. That’s what it’s been like every year so far,” says Scheuller, who came to the program three years ago after 24 years at Bensalem. “I’ll never forget my first day. First official day of practice, I walk in the back door, there’s thirty girls standing behind the blocks, caps on, goggles, ready for warm-ups.”
The coaches only echo what every girl on the team says, from Millen describing the incredibly positive energy in the group to Hentzel explaining how her teammates’ cheering her on in each event only pushes her to swim faster.
“Every time I get ready to start, I have five or six teammates wishing me good luck,” Julia Demarest says.
Even teammates swimming against her in each meet have words of encouragement.
With all of this camaraderie, a chance certainly exists for a team to sacrifice a bit of hard work for the bonding experience. Yet the team finds a way to meld the two, making it even stronger.
Ask them about the Tae-Bo they do on Saturday mornings, a tradition started last year during weekend practices that has grown to the point that they even have themed workout days. The girls laugh as they recall a recent one - an ‘80s-style day complete with leg-warmers, colorful tights, and side ponytails.
A team this good can afford the laughs. From a startlingly impressive pair of freshmen in Madison Myers and Brooke Burschlag to a core group of seniors hungry to walk away from leagues with a championship, the deep North squad works to keep every swimmer at the top of her game.
“We’re a really close team, we all support each other. If one of us isn’t doing well, we all focus on that person so they can get their best race,” Phayre says.
Their friendship, their success, and their solid resume – their undefeated romp through the league included a decisive win over a sharp Abington squad and on the road against perennial power Pennsbury in a white-knuckle meet a week ago – have all left the Indians brimming with confidence. The girls grin when asked how they feel they’ll do at leagues, though most hesitate to channel Joe Namath and make a call about their district finish. They refuse to dive forward at the carrot.
“I’m not looking ahead. I’m just trying to soak up everything, remember everything,” Phayre, a senior, says. “I think it would be great if we were amazing at both [the League and District] meets. Especially for Ted, it would be his first major championship. But we’re just enjoying every minute.”
“We didn’t look ahead to any other meet before the Pennsbury meet,” she said. “We looked at every race beforehand, and during the meet we watched them touch the wall. We just take everything step-by-step.”
Errico keeps the same perspective. The coach won’t deny the success everyone has had, won’t ignore that nobody has had the answer for the depth the Indians throw at every event. But nothing is a guarantee.
“Anything can happen,” she said. “Disqualifications happen, false starts happen. But it’s hard to see yourself losing when you’ve come this far.”
“I say to them we accomplished two of our goals, beating Pennsbury and going undefeated,” Scheuller says. “But Leagues is still there. It’s the carrot on the end of the stick.”
Each year, Scheuller has a superstition. This year’s fits perfectly with the team’s goal: he carries a Suburban One League championship medal in his pocket every day. Every once in a while the girls ask him if he has the medal. He reaches into his pocket and shows them. It’s always there, a golden carrot to cap off his colorful training system.
But then he puts the medal away, and the team gets back to work. There are a lot of colors on the sheet, but gold isn’t one they have.