From a swimming lapse to swimming laps

Assistant coach Michael Howie shares a laugh with Stephanie Cichoski, head coach of the OCHS swim team. Both coaches speak highly of Woodberry Forest’s Ruffner Memorial Natatorium, where the OCHS team practices several times a week.  

After a year’s hiatus, the Orange County High School (OCHS) swim team is happily taking the plunge at Woodberry Forest School. A new agreement between the two schools allows the OCHS roster of seven boys and 18 girls to practice at the private school’s aquatic facility during the winter season. 

In recent years, the team practiced at Fork Union Military Academy (FUMA), an hour’s drive away. Coach Stephanie Cichoski is pleased with the change in circumstances and speaks highly of Woodberry’s Ruffin Memorial Natatorium. “It’s a beautiful facility,” Cichoski said. “We’re grateful for the opportunity to not have to travel so far.” The Woodberry campus is an easy 10-15 minute drive from Orange.

Without a pool of its own, OCHS held practice at Woodberry Forest until about a decade ago. At that time, a change in policy at Woodberry ended the cooperative venture. Orange County Public Schools then worked out an arrangement with FUMA, one of the few schools in the area with an indoor pool. Commuting to Fork Union was hard on team members and not so great for coaches, either. Assistant coach Michael Howie said the first time he rode the team bus to Fork Union, “I actually threw up because I was sick from the bus ride. I hadn’t ridden a bus in years.”

Last year, Cichoski decided to take a break from coaching, in part due to the hassle of commuting to FUMA for practice. When no one stepped forward to replace her—Howie was not interested in the head job—OCHS put its swim program on hold. Greg Guldin, aquatics director at Woodberry, said the decision caught his attention. “From my perspective at Woodberry, that was really sad for me to hear, and it pushed us over the edge to opening up the doors to the pool.”

Once Woodberry’s board of trustees relaxed a rule preventing outside organizations from renting campus facilities, Guldin made sure Orange County Public Schools had a chance to lease the natatorium. The arrangement comes with a relatively modest cost of $2,880 for the winter swimming season.

Because several area schools practice at Ruffner Natatorium, OCHS is on a rotating schedule. The team typically has three days a week of pool time. Off days are spent lifting weights. Practice days and times vary, with one-hour sessions often beginning as late as 6 p.m. Sometimes OCHS has all six lanes to itself; other times, the team splits lanes with another school.

The schedule “can be a bit hectic and confusing,” Cichoski admitted, but she and her swimmers make the best of it. Instead of going home after school, the OCHS English teacher said, “Kids will stay in my classroom and hang out with me and do homework and eat dinner.”

In the season’s first matchup, against Albemarle and Western Albemarle, both the OCHS boys and girls placed last. Although the boys’ team is small and therefore its members are mainly aiming for strong individual times, the larger girls’ team is in the position to compete for overall points in meets. Jenna Faulconer, a senior and captain of the girls’ team, is a breakout star who placed first in the 100-yard breaststroke in the season opener. Cichoski sees strong potential in her other swimmers as well and said some are getting close to race times that will qualify them for regional competition in February.

A competitive swimmer at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Cichoski knows how much practice and self-discipline the sport requires. Her specialty was distance swimming, but she said, “I honestly think sprinting is harder than distance. Every swimmer has their own particular niche. You can quickly figure out whether they’re sprinters, mid-distance or distance.” The next step is determining which stroke—freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke or butterfly—is an individual swimmer’s strongest. According to Cichoski, sometimes she has to insist that members of the team perform in certain categories since it’s obvious to her, though not to them, where their true strengths lie.

At a recent practice, boys’ team captain Bobby Lee, a junior, paused before hopping in the Woodberry pool to applaud his head coach: ‘If we can’t do it, she helps us to do it.” Between laps, a smiling Daisy Floyd emerged from the pool to give similar reviews. Of Cichoski and Howie, who concentrates his attention on stroke technique, the OCHS sophomore said, “I love both of them. They’re really supportive of all of us. They really want the best for us.”

Describing her hopes for the team, Cichoski said, “We have a lot of young kids, and I know that they can get really frustrated at times when they don’t see themselves improving, but it just takes years and years of dedication to see that growth, so I really hope that they stick with it.”

And if they do stick with it, what is the payoff? Cichoski paused to collect her thoughts. Then, as the OCHS swimmers traversed the pool under her watchful eye, the answer came to her: “If they can transfer the dedication that they have in the pool to any facet of their life, I think that they’ll be successful. I think that’s what any coach wants. Obviously, Olympic times would be great, but if we can create athletes and turn them into people who are driven, more focused and aren’t afraid to work hard, I think that would be a win.”

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