After years of collaboration and raising private funds between the two communities, high school swimmers in Columbia Falls and Whitefish are now competing against their peers across the state.
This winter is the inaugural season for the two programs, which practice together under one head coach but compete separately, similar to Flathead and Glacier and other teams across the state. There are over 20 swimmers between the two schools, including a talented group of four boys from Columbia Falls that has held its own against the top Class AA and Class A squads.
At the Great Falls Relays two weeks ago, the boys — Colton Babcock, Jacob Hohman, Kaleb Bagley and Zayne Friar — placed sixth in the 200 yard medley relay, 200 yard backstroke relay, 200 yard freestyle relay and 400 yard freestyle relay. As an overall boys team, Columbia Falls placed seventh, only one point behind Billings Skyview and Helena and ahead of Great Falls and Helena Capital, all AA teams. Babcock, a sophomore, has performed well individually, too, in freestyle and butterfly competitions.
The teams are young, with only one senior for Columbia Falls — Skye Hatfield — and one for Whitefish — Jacob Anderson, but that just means the future is increasingly bright for the upstart programs. There are two good feeder programs, though, that will no doubt provide bright stars in the future. The Whitefish Wave Ryders have been a successful swim club for years, along with a youth squad in Columbia Falls.
“There was a lot of the kids in the year-round program who don’t get recognized by their peers even though some are really good swimmers, even at a national level,” said head coach Michael Nelson, a longtime coach of the year-round youth clubs. “I was hoping to have another option for them. I was also worried about the kids that couldn’t make basketball or didn’t have another winter sport, like wrestling. I just wanted another option for them.”
There are three meets remaining before the state meet, including a competition at The Summit in Kalispell on Jan. 10, starting at 11 a.m. The state swim meet is Feb. 13-14 in Missoula.
The Columbia Falls and Whitefish teams are the latest local squads to surface in the valley. Bigfork added a girls swim team last year along with a boys wrestling team.
For the latest squads, it was a long, uphill road that took three years to materialize into teams. The cost to establish the programs was over $20,000 but neither school was willing to support the teams financially. So Nelson, Rick Sullivan and Courtney Babcock began rallying support throughout the community, little by little. There was also the challenge of meeting the requirements from the Montana High School Association.
“We just kept plugging away at it. Finally in the third year it all came together,” said David Ring, the father of Whitefish sophomore Sonja Ring who joined the effort and is now president of the program’s board.
Ring’s background in swimming was rather sparse, similar to other parents. But he had a daughter who wanted to compete, so that was all the motivation he needed to help Nelson and the others who were trying to establish the new programs.
“She has been passionate about swimming since she was little. It’s the one sport she truly loves,” he said. “I didn’t grow up swimming. It’s kind of interesting how big of a supporter I’ve become.”
The teams practice at The Wave Fitness Center in Whitefish.
Ring said the goal is to lay a strong foundation as a self-sufficient program that will continue to build and thrive into the future.
“It’s a fantastic sport. It’s something you can do the rest of your life,” he said. “It’s good to have another outlet for exercise, especially during this time of year when it’s hard to get outside.”
For more information about the Columbia Falls and Whitefish swim teams, visit www.cfwfswimteams.com.