The lifeguard on duty said that it would be impossible to miss Ocean Pines Hammerheads Swim Team Coach Suzy Toner.
“She has almost-white hair and will be wearing a tie-dye tee-shirt,” he said. He left out the part about the wraparound shades and “platinum” best describes her hair color but identifying her was easy enough.
Toner has been an Ocean Pines summer resident since she was a child. Ginny Reister, the first lady of Ocean Pines Aquatics, taught her to swim in the 1970s and since then her primary thrust is to find the place where serious swimming meets summertime fun.
Throughout her childhood, her family would pack the car and drive from Georgia to Ocean Pines the day school ended and not return until the day before it was scheduled to start. It is a ritual she kept after having kids of her own, except now the trip is from Mason, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati and the house is one she bought with her husband, Gary.
“Summers here were the best part of life for sure,” she said. A member of the first swim team Ocean Pines ever had, she took advantage of the opportunity, swimming competitively each summer, through the school year and eventually on the collegiate level.
Suzy Toner and the Next Generation
As she helps to train this generation of swimmers, she keeps the notion of the pyramid firmly in her head — strong base is critical if the rest is to stay together. To that end she encourages any child who can swim freestyle and has even a “semblance” of a backstroke to join the team.
The “more the merrier” attitude is born from the belief that there is more to swimming than not drowning. For her, as it is for the other coaches and most of the team members, swimming is part of a larger community, the focus of which is fun and healthful exercise mixed in a way that makes it difficult to know where one ends and the other begins.
Practices consist of laps but also a daily theme that includes “Move It! Monday,” which features technique and skill drills and “Treasure Tuesday,” which offers treasure hunts and prizes. But more than that, she said, it’s a family social event.
Last year, Suzy Toner put a ban on the phrase, “I’m tired.” The ban didn’t apply just to practice, it applied to team members’ entire day and to their family members’ as well.
“The more you say it, the more you feel it,” she said.
The positive high-energy approach mixed with enough fun and silliness to keep swimming practice from being the low point of a kid’s summer has endeared her to both the kids and the parents.
Moreover, the culture has spread to the off-season when kids can continue their Hammerhead careers regardless of whether they want to compete on other teams. After a relatively successful inaugural season, for which Toner credits the parents and aquatics board members exclusively, the Hammerheads are on the verge of their completing their first year-round season.
“It keeps the kids wet and loving the water,” Toner said of the indoor program.
A Commitment to Self-Improvement
The commitment to self-improvement always overrides besting other swimmers in the Hammerhead culture and it is no mistake. While the team is in no way short on skilled competitive swimmers, Toner prefers each swimmer to improving their own time rather than trying to improve on someone else’s.
“Getting your best time is what we focus on,” she said. “A personal best is a personal best.”
During her early married life, Toner’s travels took her to Australia, where her husband coached Olympians and learned a coaching technique that has helped her to tweak her swimmers’ performance.
Rather than having a sit-down after practice, or even a brief talk at the end of a lane, Toner and the rest of the coaching staff use each stroke as a teaching opportunity.
“We have very experienced coaches and enough of them to stand around the pool and watch,” she said.
Having the kids focus so intently on their strokes and being able to make corrections as they go, vastly improves them as swimmers as the summer goes on. The “dry land” aspect of team training — essentially a calisthenics program — makes them strong swimmers but also develops an awareness of what it takes to get into shape and stay there.
Kids who can set goals, measure their performances in relation to expectations and always find room for improving their personal bests will take the lessons they learn at the pool into the classroom, their regular decision making and finally into their adult lives.
The Hammerheads experience is as much a life-improving one as it is an opportunity for summer recreation. And that is the most important lesson Suzy Toner and her staff aim to teach.
This story originally appeared in the June 16, 2011 edition of the Bayside Gazette.