Hot and humid air is a rare commodity in the long months of a St. Paul winter, but seasoned residents of the city may know they can catch a taste of tropical climates in the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in Como Park.
On the other side of Lake Como, the neighborhood has another large space that feels like the tropics upon entry. Tucked behind the gym at Como Park Senior High School, off a long hallway on the eastern end of the building, is the well-heated pool area where you can find the Como swim team training after school.
From mid-November through the end of February, the Como Pool area is a warm-weather destination for 16 young and enthusiastic student athletes who comprise the Como Park boys swimming program. The range of ability is wide, yet for all the participants, the pool is a place where they feel they belong.
Novice and less speedy swimmers work on basic technique and compete in junior varsity meets. More experienced swimmers with advanced technique and stamina represent Como in the varsity competitions. Similarly to many Como athletic squads, there is acceptance for all, with teammates encouraging and pushing each other to achieve personal bests.
The coach in charge is a former Carleton College athlete who qualified for the D3 national meet in 1987 while swimming for the Knights. Coach Steve Conery has taken what he learned at Carleton and applied it to the Como teams he has been coaching since 2001.
Conery is proud of the 15 years he has led the Cougars, spending the fall seasons training the Lady Cougars swim team, and the winters with the boys. Neither program is at the top of the conference, but both are consistently in the top half, with the boys holding a virtual lock on the third-place position.
But as the 2016 season winds down, Conery sees the recently completed conference meet—his team once again finished third out of seven city schools—a bit differently.
“There is the promise of success,” said Conery. “I think in the future, if we can continue growing as a team, we’ll be competitive (for a top-two finish).
Multiple years of high school swimming still ahead for a group of talented underclassmen is indeed a promising prospect. Speaking of his team, Conery says, “I like their youth, I like their enthusiasm, and I like the way they work as a team.”
The team’s captains are junior Joe McCune-Zierath and sophomore Cole Napierala. Other top varsity performers through the season and at the conference meet included sophomores Noah Frese and Jared Czech and freshmen Joe Miller and Frank McGuire.
Every member of the program is valued, encouraged and supported, Conery said. The various personalities, ages and cultures created a fun chemistry. The full roster of the Como swim team includes seniors Vang Xiong, Khun Myo and Vichai Thao, sophomores Graeme Thompson and Allan Thoresen, freshmen Elliot Olson-Halpenny and Philip Chervenak, and Murray Middle School eighth-grader Levi Treiber. The team also has two foreign exchange students, Elia Frinzi from Italy and Mael Alvestegui from France.
Conery assigns different stroke drills to his swimmers on an individual basis to maximize potential improvement. He also varies the workouts and activities. Examples include the occasional “campfire” meetings around stacked kickboards, dry-land fitness training, sprints in the pool, as well as the laps that build the stamina.
What sort of distance do the top swimmers cover in a typical day of practice? On average, Conery says they swim about 5,000 to 6,000 yards.
Compile the distance another way, and that’s 2.5 to 3 miles—a day. Surprised? These guys have become fit athletes. And focused. They don’t count their laps, or even think about it in terms of yards or miles. They just keep swimming.
“We don’t think about how much we swim,” said co-captain Cole Napierala, though he was surprised the team’s laps translate into miles. “That’s kind of crazy, but the team helps each other get through, he said. “We tell jokes before a set and stay cheerful. You learn to be physically and mentally strong to get through those workouts.”
Junior co-captain Joe McCune-Zierath agreed. He’s proud of the work with his teammates, and enjoys the camaraderie everyday on the pool deck and in the water. “We’ve all improved and we see each other cutting down their times,” said McCune-Zierath. “It’s exciting to see the results and know how far you’ve come.”
For the Como boys swimming team, 2016 has already produced pride, good times and personal bests. What they could do in 2017 and beyond holds promise for the Cougars. They’re already looking forward to the sets, the laughs and reaching new milestones.
Eric Erickson is a social studies teacher at Como Park High School and a longtime coach of school and youth sports in St. Paul.