By Mary Jane Souder
Claudia Thamm, according to North Penn swim coach Jeff Faikish, has the ‘it factor.’
The recent North Penn graduate gave glimpses of that coveted trait long before she made her mark in the pool for the Knights.
“From the time she was 10 years old and I was coaching a different program and I saw her swim – there was something special about Claudia Thamm,” Faikish said. “As her coach for the past seven years, she has the ‘it factor.’
“It’s one of those things you can’t coach. When the moment calls for it, she can rise to the occasion, and when a coach might need a spark, she was my go-to girl. I would walk over to her and plant a thought in her ear that – ‘Hey, the team needs something,’ and she could rise to the occasion and set the spark on fire.”
Saying Thamm can rise to the occasion might be an understatement. With Thamm’s North Penn water polo team locked in a 4-4 tie with top-seeded Wilson in the state championship match and nine seconds remaining in regulation, the Knights were awarded a penalty shot. Coach Jason Grubb called Thamm’s number. After all, it was Thamm who scored the game-tying goal with 1:49 remaining in regulation.
“All year long, we’re like – ‘Who are we going to put in that position?’” Grubb said. “We said, ‘It’s Claudia, she’s got nerves of steel.’
“We would vary it up during the season, but in that situation with everything on the line, she’s the type of person you ride it out with for that one. She rises up, nails the top corner and that was it for her final year. It was unbelievable.”
It would make perfect sense if Thamm – when asked what she’ll remember most about her four-year stint on the water polo team – would point to the electrifying moment that propelled the Knights to their fifth straight state crown in the final game of her high school career.
“A lot of people would say they remember the end, but honestly, I think I’ll remember the beginning,” Thamm said. “I was a freshman and didn’t really know what I was getting into.
“I was part of something so much bigger than myself, and it was humbling, and it really taught me a lot and kind of prepared me for what was coming in the years to come.”
The years to come included four state titles in water polo as well as medal-winning performances at the league, district and state levels in swimming. Just how gifted Thamm is in the pool is underscored by the fact that she is taking her talents to Auburn University where she will compete for the swim team.
“She’s more than just a swimmer, she’s an all-around athlete,” Faikish said. “I was a distance swimmer growing up, and I spent a lot of time in the pool, but as I became a coach and you start to realize the innovations in coaching and advancements in how you prepare athletes - I took from many different sports to create the program I have as a swim coach here at North Penn. Everything from gymnastics to power lifting and everything in between, and Claudia excels at everything, which is a unique piece for the type of athlete she is.”
Grubb echoed a similar sentiment.
“She’s just one of those athletes – she’s versatile,” the Knights’ water polo coach said. “You can put her wherever you want.
“She’s so strong – you can say, ‘Go play the best girl on that team,’ or ‘Go on offense now.’ It’s a very big help when you have somebody that you can move wherever you want and try and find the best matchup possible, and she was that person.”
If Thamm were just about scoring game-winning goals and accumulating medals, the North Penn graduate would be in a league of her own, but according to Faikish, Thamm is about much more than that.
“As a person, she’s a great kid, she really is - in the community and in school and what we run with our age group programs at North Penn Aquatic Club,” the Knights’ swim coach said. “She’s one of those people I’ve never had to ask to be a role model because she exudes it.
“Little kids look up to her, and she flourishes in that environment. They see who she is and how she acts, and there is no better person to follow.”
One of four girls with two older siblings and one younger, Thamm says she was thrown into whatever sport her older sisters were involved in at the time.
“I did dance for a while, gymnastics, soccer, basically every sport a little kid could try,” she said. “Neither of my older siblings tried (competitive) swimming. From a young age, I always did swim lessons. I loved just swimming with my friends, but it was never anything I wanted to be competitive about.”
When she was in second grade, Thamm was asked by a friend to join the swim team.
“I said, ‘Why not? You’re my best friend. I’ll do whatever you want to do,’” she said.
It marked the beginning of a journey that Thamm – at the time - certainly couldn’t have imagined.
“I always loved the water, loved the ocean and just loved being with my friends all summer every single day all day long,” she said. “My mom worked at the pool as a summer job. Basically, she’d leave for work at 10 o’clock in the morning, and I was right there with a cooler packed with stuff, and my little sister and I stayed until she was done at the end of the day. We were pool rats, but it was fun.”
Thamm – taller than many of her peers when she first began swimming competitively – excelled from the outset.
“I did really well just because that’s how I was built,” she said.
By the time Thamm was in middle school, swimming had become a passion.
“In eighth grade, Jason Grubb came up to me and said – you need to play water polo,” she recalled. “Basically, if you swim, you play water polo. That’s the aquatic way.
By her sophomore year, Thamm was playing varsity, and for her final two years of high school, she was a fixture in the lineup of the Knights’ water polo team, her career culminating with the heart stopping state title win over Wilson.
“This past water polo season was amazing,” Thamm said. “That last game was all adrenaline. It was crazy – it was kind of the end all be all.
“It was my senior year, state championship final. It was a great team effort by everybody, and I’m really proud of how it ended. I’m really sad to leave North Penn water polo. I’ve learned a lot, and it’s definitely helped my swimming career as well. I really hope that North Penn keeps up the tradition.”
There were early signs that Thamm was a special talent in the pool. She might not remember and undoubtedly didn’t list it on her college resume, but on Feb. 11, 2011, Thamm was named Montgomeryville-LansdalePatch’s first Whiz Kid for her record-setting performances in the Bux-Mont Swim League.
According to the Patch article, Thamm set three Bux-Mont Swim League records and received five honors in the 8-and-under division at the Bux-Mont Swimming and Diving ‘A’ Championships at La Salle University. Not a whole lot changed in the years that followed.
A NISCA (National Interscholastic Swimming Association) All-American, Thamm capped a stellar high school swimming career by capturing four medals at both the District 1 3A and PIAA 3A championships. At districts, Thamm won the 200 IM and was part of the gold medal 200 IM relay team that set a new record. She also was part of the first place 400 freestyle relay and finished third in the 100 butterfly. In her final state meet, Thamm finished second in the 100 butterfly and fourth in the 200 IM, and she was part of the Knights’ silver medal 400 freestyle and 200 medley relay teams. She was a key piece of three state championship squads in her four years, including back-to-back titles as a junior and senior.
“Claudia is a unique athlete, and she really is a unique person,” Faikish said. “I will set challenges up that are specific for failure, and it’s like, ‘Crap, she did it. Now I have to go back to the drawing board and find something else.’”
Thamm’s success didn’t just happen. It represents literally years of hard work. A typical mid-season schedule for Thamm and her teammates included three-hour practices every day after school, morning practices three days a week from 5:30-6:45 a.m. and four-hour Saturday morning practices.
“It’s a ton of time,” Thamm said. “Middle of the season when you’re doing that week after week after week, you’re like, ‘Why the heck am I doing this? Why am I here? I could be in bed.’
“It’s just all about the grind. You’ve got to think about the end when you’re in the middle because it’s all going to be worth it. You’re going to get there, you’re going to survive. It will be okay.”
So what will Thamm take with her?
“The end of every season has been different,” she said. “We haven’t won every year. Every one (of the years) really teaches me a lesson, teaches me how to get better. So I think ending it with all my teammates and ending it as a team is really what I’m going to take away from my high school experience.”
Auburn University is Thamm’s next stop, and she’s looking forward to beginning a new chapter.
“I’m definitely really grateful for all the people that I’ve met and to have experienced such great things at North Penn,” she said. “But I’m also really eager and excited to go somewhere else and be somewhere different and just learn new things and basically start over and grow from there. I just want to thank North Penn and all my coaches for everything they’ve done but also I can’t wait for what’s to come.”
If Thamm had a message for young swimmers, it would be for them to do what they love.
“I love swimming and I love putting in the work, and that’s all you’ve got to do,” she said. “You have to keep the grind up and it will be worth it in the end, so just keep looking forward and don’t look back.”
During her years at North Penn, Thamm was part of the cabinet for the Class of 2019. She was the leader of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes club and was active with Special Olympics.
“I love doing things with special needs kids,” she said. “I was part of the unified track team, which is under Special Olympics, and I definitely learned a ton from that. I loved being a part of those kids’ lives. They really impacted me a lot.
“I liked to get involved in school as much as I could, and as difficult as it is, getting involved and getting to know people is definitely the best thing I’ve done in high school.”
Thamm leaves behind quite a legacy in the pool, but it’s the impact she had out of the pool that sets the North Penn alum apart. Faikish sums it up best.
“One of my favorite moments of being a high school coach is I also coach the club age group program, so I get to see those kids look up to Claudia, and I get to watch her hold the kids’ hands and walk them up to the block and show them how to do it and encourage them,” the Knights’ coach said. “When they finish, kids don’t want to come and talk to me. They want to talk to Claudia Thamm, and that’s a unique characteristic for someone to have as a teenager. She’s such a wonderful person. It comes through, and it’s seen everywhere she goes. People are attracted to her excitement and her enthusiasm.”