Tuesday, November 30, 2021     Volume: 22, Issue: 39

Santa Maria Sun / Sports Lead

The following article was posted on March 3rd, 2009, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 9, Issue 51 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 9, Issue 51

Everybody in the pool

Santa Maria High School's swim team is busting at the seams


Air and water
Santa Maria High School ASB President Joey Garcia flies off the block.
The Santa Maria High School swim team’s roster listed less than 30 kids at the end of 2007. Last year was Santa Maria High’s swimming coach Caren Ray’s first time back after an eight-year hiatus. She ended the season with 78 kids on the team. This year, Ray and her coaching staff—co-coach Jamie Mcgray and assistant coach Sara Lougee—figure the number is closer to 130.

Coach Ray says part of the reason for their large numbers is that they don’t charge the kids and they don’t make cuts. To be sure, she says, they have a traveling team made up of the top varsity swimmers, but that doesn’t keep her from telling her kids to spread the word around campus: “If you can’t float, come out here and we’ll teach you.”

And she’s serious about that promise. One end of the pool is filled with kids on kickboards, literally learning to swim. Other students practice their butterfly stroke at the other end.

Ray went to school during a time when, if a girl wanted to play water polo, she had to do so with the boys. The four-time collegiate All-American says swimming has given her “more self-confidence than just about anyone else here.”

She hopes to inspire that kind of self-confidence in her students, and so far, it seems to be working. At some recent time trials, one of her students, junior Nestor Nunez, achieved a personal best in all five of his races. Ray says Nunez is one of her butterfliers—a master of that insane-looking stroke that makes the rest of us feel humble—a skill he’s been working on with her since the start of his sophomore year.

As we walk around the pool, I learn that one of the team-building traditions is the handing out of nicknames. Ray talks about three guys on the team who were known for being wise, crazy, and brave, respectively. Naturally, they’re “Yoda,” “Han,” and “Chewie.”

Walk and talk
Coach Caren Ray talks butterfly with junior Nestor Nunez.
I meet “El Capitan” and “Zombie,” hear about “Princess” (a guy who, it seems, is really, really concerned about his hair), and listen to the tale of “Cherry Drop,” who makes me swear not to use her real name for this story. She may have set a world record for breath-holding while trying not to have her picture taken.

As “Cherry” tells it, she gained her nickname after she fell out of a tree. That was it, she says, laughing and blushing in equal parts. Her teammates and coach are having none of it.

“You mean you didn’t tell him you were trying to do a backflip out of the tree?” a teammate offers helpfully.

“And that you didn’t land it?” adds Coach Ray.

“Cherry,” blushing furiously now, laughs and then makes me swear, again, not to use her name.

I’m in the middle of asking sophomore Lauren Gomes—“Squirty” to the rest of the team—what her favorite part of the sport is when a resounding SMACK echoes across the pool, immediately followed by a collective intake of breath and a chorus of “oooooh.” One of the JV swimmers stayed a little too horizontal while coming off the blocks.

Gomes mutters “ouch” under her breath and continues: “I love how close our team is, and the feeling of touching the wall when you’re in first place.”

Ray is unabashed in her admiration for the caliber of student swimming attracts: Two of her top boys—Joey Garcia and Justin Wildes—are the student body president and vice president, respectively, while “Squirty” Gomes is carrying a 4.4 GPA. Karen Hollinghead actually sounds disappointed when she mentions her 4.1 GPA.

Coach Ray describes her team captain, Garcia, as the “heart and soul of the team.” “El Capitan” is wearing an infectious grin and a custom-made Speedo with a wild print pattern. He doesn’t have to think at all when I ask him what his favorite moment in swimming has been.

“I was up against this 6-foot-tall, in-shape guy from Lompoc,” he says. “He gets on the block next to me, looks over, and laughs. His technique wasn’t as good as mine, though.”

Garcia says the next part with a touch of smugness: “I beat him by 15 seconds. Walked over afterwards and told him, ‘Fat boy beat you!’”

“El Capitan” may not have the chiseled six-pack abs, but that hardly seems to make a difference as he flies off the block.

There’s no doubting the mutual respect and admiration that Coach Ray and her athletes feel for each other.

“They keep me young,” she says.

Regardless of how the season turns out, it’s obvious they’re all going to have a good time getting there.

Staff Writer Nicholas Walter is known as “Jemmy Ducks” around the Sun office. Contact him at nwalter@santamariasun.com.

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