Former Olympic, Paralympic swimmers give insights, training tips to Bel Air youngsters

Former Olympic swimmer tells children a gold medal is nothing without good character

Aaron Peirsol held up one of the five gold medals he has won as an Olympic swimmer, an impressive sight for the Bel Air Athletic Club youth swimmers he was talking to Saturday, but he stressed the medal means very little if the young athletes do not show good character.

"It's about the journey," Peirsol said, noting a gold medal is not worth the effort if no one wants to shake their hand while on the winners' stand.

Peirsol, who competed in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympic games and won golds in 2004 and 2008, spoke to about 200 swimmers and their parents Saturday. He was joined by fellow Olympians Staciana Winfield and Dave Denniston.

The trio owns the Southern California-based company Swim It Forward, through which they lead clinics with youth swimmers to help them improve their skills and promote service learning and community outreach, according to Winfield.

Winfield won a gold medal in the 400-meter medley relay during the 2000 games in Sydney, Australia. Denniston, who was an All-American swimmer and champion swimmer at the college level before he was paralyzed in a sledding accident, competed during the 2008 Paralympic games and was a swim coach during the 2012 Paralympics.

"It's not about how good we are, how fast we are," Winfield said later. "It's really about, how can we impact others in a positive way?"

Peter Leib, head coach of the Bel Air Athletic Club Swim Team, invited Denniston, Peirsol and Winfield to work with his swimmers. They started early Saturday morning in the pool with the young people, following up the instruction with motivational talks.

Leib, who has been a swim coach at BAAC for three years, said he invites Olympians to hold annual clinics with his swimmers and their families. Past visitors include Misty Hyman and Garrett Weber-Gale.

Weber-Gale was part of the gold-medal winning 4x100-meter relay team in the 2008 Olympics, which included famed Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who spent his early childhood in Harford County. In addition to Phelps winning several more gold medals in the recently completed 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, Bel Air resident Chase Kalisz won a silver medal in the 400 IM.

Needless to say, competitive swimming is a big deal in Harford County.

Leib runs programs for children between the ages of 4 and 18. He has about 120 older competitive swimmers and about 20 to 30 younger, pre-competitive swimmers.

"What I try and do is offer them as much information as possible, providing for any type of success they might want to achieve," Leib said.

Denniston, Peirsol and Winfield talked about their childhood dreams of becoming swimmers, or in Denniston's case, an NBA star, their long journeys toward swimming at the international level and how they have dealt with disappointments and crises.

Denniston was preparing to travel to New Zealand for a job as a swimming coach in 2005, a job offer that came as he was "stuck in a rut" after failing to make the U.S. Olympic team in 2004.

He and a friend were celebrating before he left with a visit to a cabin in the Wyoming mountains.

Denniston was sledding down a slope and struck a tree, injuring his spine and causing him to be paralyzed from the waist down. He gets around in a wheelchair.

"It was the scariest moment of my life, but it was also the best thing that ever happened to me," he said.

Denniston went through a "total transformation" of his attitude, which eventually led to competing in the Paralympics against other athletes with disabilities.

"There's a strong bridge that connects your mind to your body and your body to your mind, and that bridge is your attitude," he said.

The swimmers talked with the youths afterward, posed for pictures and signed autographs.

"It was really inspirational and motivational, to keep going and follow your dreams," 12-year-old Addy Snyder said.

Addy, who attends Patterson Mill Middle School, has been a swimmer for four years. Her younger brother, Kade, 10, who attends Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School, also swims for the BAAC.

"Whenever I jump into the pool to practice it really takes all the stress away, and I love to see how far I have come," Addy said.

Her mother, Rebecca, said the clinic was "super-inspiring, and I hope my kids took in even a little part of it."

The trio who visited the BAAC Saturday was also drawn by the news that Harford County Public Schools officials almost canceled the school system's interscholastic swimming program at the beginning of this summer, citing budgetary concerns.

School officials proposed closing three pools at local middle schools because of their age and the prohibitive expense of maintaining them, which meant high school swim teams would have to disband or find a privately-operated pool for practices and meets.

The Harford swimming community rallied against the proposal, and the school board voted in favor of a one-time allocation from the operating budget fund balance to keep pools open through the end of the current school year.

Winfield said she hopes "we can bring any sort of positive light on the sport of swimming and the impact that swimming has on the community."

Winfield also has connections to Harford County through Courtney Kalisz, the older sister of Chase Kalisz.

As an assistant coach at the University of Southern California, Winfield recruited Courtney Kalisz, who swam for USC until her career was ended by an ankle injury.

Winfield is also friends with Bethany Goodwin, who graduated from North Harford High School, swam for UCLA and competed for a spot on Team USA for the 2000 games; she did not make it. Winfield and Goodwin also tried out together for the 2004 Olympic team and both live in Southern California.

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