The stress and success of Wayland swim and dive


Credit: Emma Zocco

Every high school sport comes with challenges, but for the Wayland Swim and Dive team they are additive elements that make for a stressful season. The image above shows Junior Katie Pralle performing an 100 butterfly at Waylands dual meet against Holliston on Dec. 8, 2022. Divers performed earlier in the meet where many of them made their first cuts for states.

Talia Macchi

Year after year, the Wayland swim and dive team sees many returning and fresh faces to the pool to start off their season. When the brisk weather and school stress hit, however, along with pressures from coaches, some aquatic athletes find themselves second guessing their love of the sport, struggling to stay mentally afloat.

The team gets about 15-20 new swimmers every season, most of whom are freshmen eager to join a community-based high school sport. Many of the freshmen have had previous swim experience prior to the high school’s high profile team.

“My freshman year I joined because it’s a sport that I love,” senior Hannah Gordon said. “I’ve basically been doing it my whole life and I have a lot of really good friends on the team so we all did it together.”

As pre-season started in early December, some underclassmen team members worried about their debut high school season. They are new to the team, lacking knowledge of how intense practices can be, how much hard work is necessary for the sport and unaware of the high expectations the coaches maintain.

“There are a lot of freshmen who have [swam] for a while, and they have loved the sport and it is fun for them and then they come to high school and they are just not prepared,” Gordon said.

As two hour practices are held six days a week at the high school, athletes begin to understand the high commitment that is necessary for this sport as the season moves along. Some swimmers and divers feel fatigued as a result of the extensive schedule. Such feelings are only elevated when the cold winter takes over.

“It’s very depressing to walk out of the pool at 5:30 and you’re cold and you’re wet and [your] hair freezes on the way to the car during a five second walk,” Gordon said.

These sometimes negative thoughts and feelings create an inconsistent atmosphere inside the pool house, impacting the energy of each practice. With the many athletes on the team, it is difficult for everyone to persistently be on their a-game.

“The atmosphere really varies from day to day,” junior Mia Mee said. “Some days I’ll walk in and it’s super supportive and fun and easy going, sometimes everyone seems super down and you can tell.”

The team has a large emphasis on community. On some days, the team will play games like trivia before practice in celebration of a previous win. On other days, they will sit down to have serious discussions, elaborating on their scores or efforts from a previous meet or practice.

“Sometimes we do trivia and fun things but occasionally there will be times where coaches just call people out to talk to them before practice which is scary,” Mee said.

The coaches know how to make a winning team, pushing their team to reach their potential. Head coach Michael Foley was inducted into the Massachusetts High School Swimming Coaches Hall of Fame in 2019, and with over 700 wins from his coaching career, he was named the winningest coach in MA history from NECN in 2020.

“Our job as coaches is to understand what motivates the individual athlete and use that to challenge them to shine,” coach Benjamin Downs and other coaches said. “Every athlete is an individual so there is not a ‘one size fits all solution’ and that is what keeps the coaches challenged.”

This season, the girls team has been undefeated with 14 wins, and recently won the DCL meet. The boys team is close behind. However, the downside of these achievements is the immense pressure that comes with it, making many swimmers and divers feel both physically and mentally tired in the pool.

“My teammates are super supportive and there is a really good atmosphere amongst the team, but some of the coaches feel like they’d rather us swim and dive [well], than value our own mental health which definitely makes the atmosphere more difficult,” Mee said.

One swimmer, who felt as though their mental health was not valued, left the sport halfway through the season this year due to their experiences with burnout. This student wished to remain anonymous in an interview.

“I had a really hard time not being able to take a break,” the anonymous student said. “I would love if the coaches would prioritize mental health and [the] overall wellbeing of their swimmers.”

The anonymous student had been swimming since they were five years old and enjoyed being an athlete that younger kids could look up to. So, when they found an alternate sport that they truly enjoyed, they decided that the best decision for them was to leave the team.

“I quit because of the mental health attitudes on the team and because I found another sport that suited me better,” the anonymous student said.

Although they found the mental health aspect to be their ultimate turning point, they do recount many positive aspects of the team.

“I loved being with [my] teammates, I loved motivating my teammates and being with the freshman,” the anonymous student said.

This athlete decided to step away from the team for various reasons, though, the coaches understand that the pandemic created anxiety and stress for high school students. The coaches welcome and encourage their athletes to speak to them about their stress.

“We recognize this and want our student-athletes to enjoy the experience of being on the team and are willing to do whatever we can to ensure this,” Downs and other coaches said.

The swim and dive team has its many facets, just like any other high school sport. However, some team members find it more challenging to find an acceptable balance. Despite this challenge, with the many great social and athletic opportunities the team brings, it is clear that swimming and diving is a highly regarded competitive sport.

“There is a lot of pressure, it’s a hard team and it’s a big time commitment, but at the same time it’s a lot of fun,” Mee said. “Everyone is super close and supportive of each other and if you love the sport and you want to join then you’ll do well and go far, and at the end of the day that’s what it’s about, loving your sport.”