Growing swim culture powers Central’s surging team

At some point in the not-so-distant past, Central High School’s Dean Woodwell was swimming in a lane behind his former teammate, Aaron Waller. He wanted to pass him.

He badly wanted to pass him.

But, he couldn’t. Waller was a junior, and Woodwell was a freshman, and Waller was just faster. Still, when the laps were over, Waller and the other upperclassmen got together and brought Woodwell and his freshman classmates along, giving them tips on how to cut times and conserve energy. Then, when practice was over, they’d all load up on the bus and head back from their Strasburg practice facility to Woodstock.

Sooner or later, a funny thing happened. All those pointers and practice sessions paid off, and Woodwell started catching Waller in the lane.

Eventually, Woodwell and Waller both went on to produce terrific 2016 state meet performances, highlighted by a 5th place finish in the 400-yard freestyle relay and a 6th place finish in the 200-yard freestyle relay. Waller led off on both relays; Woodwell anchored both.

This season, Woodwell became one of those deft upperclassman, guiding a talented-but-raw group of freshmen and sophomores. The 2016-17 group has plenty of youth — between the boys and the girls, they have 14 underclassmen — but that didn’t stop the Falcons from replicating a lofty finish, placing sixth (girls) and seventh (boys) at the state meet in Christiansburg last month.

Woodwell, along with his star counterpart on the girls’ team, Ashley Funkhouser, both put in plenty of time in the pool, trying to improve their times. But they also put in time volunteering and teaching swim clinics to younger kids that are coming up through community swim programs. Woodwell works with the Spotswood Dolphins; Funkhouser has been volunteering with the Edinburg Ducks, whom she was once a member of.

Central coach Steve Shaffer calls them “great team leaders and great individual contributors.”

Shaffer, who just completed his sixth year of coaching Central, has guided the program to surer footing, and the results have started to show over the last couple of years.

It helps when you’ve got a three-time state champion on the roster, too.

Funkhouser knows her role on the team with wisdom beyond her young age. In February’s state meet, all she managed to do was win championships in the 50-yard and 100-yard variations of the Freestyle, alongside competing on the 200 and 400-yard freestyle relays.

In the pool, she’s a technician about strokes and flip-turns, and she does her best to pass that knowledge along to the girls who are younger than her.

“Ashley’s really into helping with the technical stuff, more so than me” Woodwell said. As he says it, Shaffer laughs quietly.

“You’ve done your share of teaching the young ones too, Dean,” he says. Woodwell smiles.

But if the pool is where the Falcons become strong individual swimmers, it’s the long bus ride to Strasburg where they become a cohesive team. Thirty minutes back and forth to Strasburg’s Signal Knob Recreation Center leaves plenty of time for card games, massage chains and loud music.

“I prefer country music,” Woodwell says, “but they all get mad at me.”

Funkhouser, the polished diplomat, clarifies.

“We listen to everything,” she says. “Just to make sure everyone is happy.”

Funkhouser is the lynchpin for the group. Not only does she give her teammates a target to chase – according to Coach Shaffer, she owns nine of the 11 school records on the girls’ side – but she’s now an upperclassman who can facilitate team traditions that were passed down to her.

Like slumber parties.

“We have big ‘Just Dance’ competitions,” Funkhouser said, recapping the events of this year’s sleepover that was held at her house. “We’re pretty good dancers. And then we have to practice the next day, and it’s like, ‘Oh no! We can’t do any swimming. We’re too tired.’”

Unsurprisingly, Woodwell and the boys don’t plan sleepovers, opting instead for the occasional dinner before meets.

It’s all part of what Shaffer thinks is an important part of high school swimming.

“They’re being teenagers,” he says, with stately wisdom.

“We’re all just here to swim and have fun,” Funkhouser added, smiling wide.

A lot of that’s true. But when it’s time to get down to business, Central is a serious team with serious ambition, complemented by smart strategies woven into the fabric of the season.

For two seasons now, Central has opened at a large meet against 3A and 4A schools in Christiansburg on the first Saturday in December. The idea is old, but effective: compete against tougher competition than you’ll ever really need to.

“They give us a good run,” Shaffer said. “It sets the bar high for the kids.”

But there’s a secondary idea in play, too.

“For the new kids, we let them see this amazing pool that the state meet will be at, and they want to work hard to go back,” Shaffer said. “It’s definitely a pool you want to go back to.”

The strategy seemed to work. Central mobbed the state meet with qualifiers in February. Funkhouser took most of the headlines, setting a few records in route to her newest state championships. But the depth that the Falcons brought to the state meet is impressive in and of itself, and it’s not unrelated to the success and scaffolding that Shaffer and his kids have been building these last few years.

“I think the community is aware of the team’s success at this point,” Shaffer said. “The parents are great encouragement. The success does begin to feed on itself.”

That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. Shaffer highlighted Central’s relays as events where the Falcons can improve if they want to aim for an even higher overall finish.

“To get a gold medal, we’ve got to continue to improve on the relays. And that’s something [Woodwell and Funkhouser] are always good at,” Shaffer said. “They’re always encouraging kids while they’re swimming and training.”

That puts Woodwell in a tough position, though. He desperately wants his teammates to continue to improve, but he’s cognizant of what happened in a certain swim lane between Waller and him, not too long ago, after a long, loud bus ride up to Signal Knob.

For now, he’s safe. None of the younger kids have passed him yet.

But it sounds like a couple are getting awfully close.

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