By Eric Erickson,
The atmosphere after school in the Como Park Senior High pool is energetic when 23 girls assemble for practice. Seventeen of the girls just finished their school day in the Como building, while six from Murray Middle School arrived via the city bus.
Four miles across town on the East Side, six Johnson High School students were jumping in their own school pool for practice — as part of the same team. The unique arrangements have allowed the Como-Johnson co-operative girls’ swim team, affectionately known as “Jomo,” to reach 29 total participants and raise their performance levels.
Swimming co-ops are common in the Minnesota State High School League. From state championship contenders to the St. Paul City Conference, many schools have found combining forces to be an effective way of avoiding too much pressure on new swimmers. At the same time, fuller rosters foster more complete and competitive meets.
Jomo is currently enjoying the results of recruitment within their own communities. Outreach and encouragement, coupled with optional summer swim sessions, have bolstered the roster. During the COVID years, there were fewer than 10 swimmers in the program.
The coaching staff credits team captains and leaders for growing the team. The captains are quick to praise the coaches who make access to a pool and proper training possible.
This year’s senior captains are Sophie Warner and Mia Trifilette-Simons from Como and Kelly Joachin from Johnson. They’ve grown up in the program and are pleased to see the positive change in participation.
“We did a lot of recruitment at Murray trying to get girls started in middle school, and once a couple girls said yes, they brought in more friends,” Trifilette-Simons said. “We also have seniors at Como who weren’t in a fall sport, so we talked to them and they decided to try swimming.”
The summer sessions proved to be a great entry point for the newcomers. Coaches volunteered to offer three to four swim sessions a week during June and July, open to all returning swimmers and anyone interested in trying.
“Summer practices were a noncommittal way to test out swimming and see what it’s like to be part of our team,” Warner explained. “It’s a big commitment if you ask someone to jump right in and join a high school team, so it was helpful for people to show up when they could and they ended up really liking it.”
Beyond the friendly support of team leaders, the organized trainings offered by the Jomo coaches built confidence in the new swimmers, customizing instruction to meet each individual at her own level — with a goal of improving from there.
Jomo’s head coach is Jon Tufte, now in his second year leading the program. Tufte teaches physical education at Como Park Elementary. Steve Conery has been with the program for decades and is currently an assistant coach, along with assistant Anna Billy and volunteer coach Christina Ward.
During the school year, Tufte runs practice in the Como pool for the Como and Murray students. Conery runs practice at the Johnson pool for the Johnson students. On Saturdays, everyone practices together. The full Jomo squad convenes for the swim meets, and they enjoy a spaghetti dinner together the night before each meet.
It hasn’t been difficult to get buy-in for the bonding. The girls from three different schools with an age range of six years have become a tight group, enjoying their carbo- loads at each other’s homes with parents preparing delicious meals.
Coach Tufte appreciates the network of support that families offer out of the pool. It helps fortify team cohesion in the pool at practices and meets, sparked by the seniors.
“Our captains are amazing. Their nurturing support for the younger and new swimmers is paramount,” Tufte said.
The construction of the larger roster is already paying dividends in competition. “When you have a small team your fastest swimmers have to swim the hardest events, not necessarily the events they’re good at,” Tufte explained. “As you get more swimmers, you can diversify your lineup to earn more points. That has given us a little bit of a competitive edge.”
Having a state tournament qualifier on the team also helps provide an edge. Sophomore Aleia Lueck qualified for state in the 50-yard freestyle last year as a freshman. Her commitment and talent make returning to state a strong possibility while she also aims to break some school records.
The range of skill in the program is part of what makes Jomo special. “We have a state qualifier in one lane, and a beginner who shouldn’t go in the deep end yet in another lane,” Tufte said with a smile. Embracing that dichotomy is creating a stronger team that benefits every individual.
Eric Erickson is a social studies teacher at Como Park High School.
Photo cutline: Members of the swim team gathering in the pool. Photo by Christina Ward.