Opelika Swim Team approaching a busy summer

By Wil Crews

Since Olympic gold medalist Tyler McGill took over as coach of the Opelika Swim Team in September of 2018, the sport’s popularity in the area has boomed.

“The city saw the value of swimming when they hosted the state championship in 2016,” McGill, an Auburn University graduate said. “And so they wanted to invest more in swimming. So, there’s always been a team, it’s just been, ‘how can we improve what we are already doing, how can we better support the program and how can we improve swimming in the area?’”

Before McGill started with the OST, there wasn’t a clear avenue for people who were taking swim lessons to join the swim team. Through creating and organizing the Opelika swim school, what McGill is “probably most proud of,” the OST has seen improvement in that area.

“One of the things the city wanted me to look at, and I was eager to do, was work on a developing a curriculum that would take people from being either totally afraid of the water or maybe a little experience in the water, and guide them through learning to swim, teaching them to swim and teaching them skills that ultimately led them to wanting to join swim team,” McGill said. “And through that program continue to build and develop younger swimmers for the future.”

As of fall 2020, the OST had 115 swimmers from ages four to 18 on its roster.

“Our goal is to have 200 or 250-plus swimmers,” McGill said. “It’s been a lot of fun growing – its chaotic, but it’s definitely worth the fun.”

McGill said he knows  that without the swim school and the instructors and teachers who invest their time to teach the kids, none of the growth would be possible.

“I’ve got a great staff,” McGill said. “Justin Perkins (aquatics coordinator for Opelika Parks and Recreation), he does a fabulous job of helping organize the swim lesson program with me and working with our instructors through that. I love my staff, and I certainly could not do it by myself.”

The typical OST competitive season goes year-round. From September to about the end of February, McGill said swimmers are racing once a month if not more.

However, things were obviously different over the past 12 months. A worldwide pandemic makes no exceptions for a pool of chlorine water.

“There were a lot of people looking forward to learning how to swim last spring,” McGill said. “But to close things down was absolutely a necessity for the safety and benefit of many people.”

Thankfully, McGill, his staff and the city quickly came up with an extensive plan to get back to swimming – safely.

“Just like everybody in this area, there has been moments where we’ve had to take a step and pause for a day or two and just say ‘okay things are building again let’s take the time away,’” McGill said. “But we have been fortunate that we have pretty much been in the water since May outside of a few days here or there. I know our kids and our families are happy that they got to be in the water and have activities this summer.”

Despite maintaining their typical practice schedule (Monday – Friday from 3:30 to 8 p.m.) as best as possible, McGill said the OST did not have the 15 to 20 competitions they would have normally had last season. However, McGill still saw the benefit of the structure that OST gives many of the swimmers, even if it was only 30 to 45 minutes a day.

“I think that benefits a lot of the youth in terms of them staying healthy by just being able to engage with their friends and see people,” McGill added. “We are obviously happy that we have been able to do that, and we continue to be safe and operate in a way that allows us to keep swimming.”

Looking forward, McGill said “highlighting the summer would be awesome for us.”

With the 2021 (postponed 2020) Tokyo Summer Olympics approaching, the OST wants to ride the wave of popularity that comes with that into more popularity locally here in Opelika.

“Olympic years are really big for swimming,” McGill, a butterflier by trade said. “Obviously the kids here and the community here aren’t going to be in Tokyo. We don’t have any swimmers from this area who are going to be at the Olympics and swimming. But I think watching the Olympics and participating in an Olympic sport and being able to watch and see what you see on TV and be able to connect to it differently because you’re in that sport is a lot of fun.”

The impending summer also means the OST is preparing for the Alabama Parks and Rec Association State Championships in July. McGill said the OST uses that to feed into its fall program.

Furthermore, McGill and his staff eagerly look forward to hosting events each year in Opelika themselves, and are anticipating hosting more meets in the future.

“Those are growing and getting bigger,” McGill added. “Teams are coming back each year so that’s exciting. I know that does a lot for the city when we can have teams from Birmingham, Columbus and Montgomery spend the day or weekend here.”

Overall, McGill is “very thankful and very fortunate to have this position.” He and his staff have one simple, but clear objective for the future of the OST.

“Really we are at the point where all eyes are on this summer and were starting to plan for that,” McGill said. “[I’m] just hoping we can continue to build and grow.”

To learn more or keep up with the OST, visit their Facebook page ‘Opelika Swim Team,’ or go to www.Opelikaswim.com.