One Dewy Friday morning last September, the 42 men and women on the swim teams at Indian River Community College in Fort Pierce, Fla., staggered onto the deck of the swimming complex for their six o'clock workout. They expected to swim laps, as usual. Instead, coach Chris Ip pulled out a boom box and told the swimmers they were about to take a dance lesson. Claudia Velasquez, a sophomore breaststroker from Lima, Peru, would teach them la macarena, a popular Latin step. "We turned on the music, and right away a couple of the other Spanish-speaking athletes got up there, and in a few minutes the whole team was doing it," Ip says. "Then they all wanted to teach a dance."
So the following week there were lessons in country line dancing, and Friday-morning sock hops became the rule. Ip had planned the first dance diversion as a way to help the team bond quickly. How better to get to know one another than to embarrass themselves in public?
The 39-year-old coach also had another motive. "I'm a terrible dancer," he says, "and this was a way for me to figure out what the kids are doing now."
Meanwhile, the nation's other junior college swimming squads are trying to figure out how to defeat Indian River in the pool, where it has been dominant for more than two decades. The River, as the school is known, has amassed 22 straight men's National Junior College Athletic Association championships, a string of U.S. titles unmatched by any other school in any sport. The Indian River women's team, for its part, has won 14 straight national titles, 18 overall.
When Dick Wells, a former high school swimming coach, was hired as Indian River's athletic director in 1974, he started a men's swim team, which he led himself. At the national meet in the Pioneers' first spring of competition, Wells spent more time watching Indian River's opponents than coaching his own swimmers. "I assessed the level of competition, the times and so forth," says Wells, who left Indian River in 1977. "Then I recruited swimmers who were near that level."
By following this simple-sounding strategy, Indian River won its first national title the very next year. The women's program, added in the fall of 75, earned its first championship in '77. Such rapid success did not surprise Wells. "It really wasn't that difficult to achieve that first title, and from there it became easier," he says. With Indian River's attractive South Florida location and a swim program generously supported by the school administration, Wells never found recruiting very tough. The team's first few national championships added to the school's allure.
The cast exterior wall of Indian River's gymnasium, which is adjacent to the out-door pool, has become a striking monument to the Pioneers' success. Forty rectangular yellow panels, one for each national title, cover much of the wall. "Whatever motivation the team doesn't give you, the wall does," says sophomore freestyler Rachael Amman. "You want your name up there, and you don't want to let down all the rest of the people up there."
This year there was little chance of such a letdown. At the NJCAA meet in Fort Lauderdale, March 13-16, Indian River set NJCAA records in both the men's and the women's 200-yard freestyle relay on the way to defeating 10 men's and 11 women's teams and repeating as national champs.
Those 200-yard relay teams exemplify the diversity of Indian River's squads. On the men's side were Julio Santos, who attended high school in Miami for a year but grew up in Ecuador, for which he will swim in the Summer Olympics in Atlanta; Kevin Bobzien, from Orange, Calif.; Chris Olafson, from Junction City, Ore.; and Charlie Bock, from Wagontown, Pa. The women's team consisted of Paula Marsiglia, from Sao Paulo, Brazil; Amman, who is from Eustis, Fla.; Melinda Cattell, from Aberdeen, Md.; and Katie Smith, from Anniston, Ala. "Last year I lived with a guy from England, a guy from Colombia and a guy from the U.S.," says Michael Andersen, a sophomore freestyler from Risskov, Denmark. "We'd sit around for whole evenings just talking about our countries."
Most swimmers who go to junior college fall into one of three categories: strong swimmers who want to become stronger students before they go on to four-year schools; swimmers who aren't being recruited by Division I schools but have the potential to be; and athletes from foreign countries who want a small-school environment in which to improve their English and adjust to U.S. culture before moving to a large university.