For a group of kids bonded by their love of swimming, there aren’t many lazy summer days.
Practice begins at 6:30 a.m. at the Woodland Park lap pool, Monday through Friday, which is actually a late start compared to the school year’s training schedule: 5:30 a.m. practice, five days a week. With the Kalispell Aquatic Team (KATS), swimming is a lesson in perseverance and passion.
“Swimmers – they’re a different breed,” said new KATS coach Brandon Rannebarger.
KATS, a year-round program sanctioned by USA Swimming, kicked off its summer season on June 16 at Woodland Park, where kids get to swim outdoors until August. The rest of the year they practice at the Summit Medical Fitness Center. The program offers opportunities for swimmers between the ages of 5 and 18, from beginners to high school state champions.
Rannebarger took over KATS in September after moving from Ohio. He has held a variety of other coaching jobs in four different states, including a college position in West Virginia. He will also be the head coach for Glacier and Flathead high schools’ swim teams, taking over for Paul Stelter, who retired after 18 years at the helm.
Rannebarger said he’s excited to be the head coach of what he calls “a very unique” program. He has plans for team barbecues, hiking and camping trips, and other events. Community service projects are also a cornerstone of KATS.
A lake swim is planned as well.
“It’s having Montana and using her own resources,” Rannebarger said of the lake swim.
Anyone equipped with basic swimming skills, Rannebarger said, qualifies for KATS. He said a lot of people hear about a swimming program where kids practice everyday and assume it’s difficult or reserved only for the more experienced, which isn’t true. Beginners only need to be able to swim one freestyle lap and one backstroke lap, he said.
Colleen Ogg, a 6-year-old star swimmer who qualified for the state meet in March, is a perfect example, Rannebarger said, of how quickly kids can develop into solid, rounded swimmers. Ogg had never done the breaststroke before KATS, but she learned rapidly, in large part due to her attentiveness – she studied the experienced swimmers.
“Now she’s a phenomenal breaststroker,” Rannebarger said.
Ogg’s mother, Casey, said KATS is an important athletic opportunity for her daughter, who is home-schooled. KATS is open to all kids, regardless of school affiliation.
“She just loves it so much,” Casey said.
The older swimmers practice from 6:30 a.m. until 8:30 a.m., though not the entire time is spent in the water. In addition to their swimming drills they do land exercises including running up hills and plyometrics. The younger swimmers practice from 8:15 a.m. until 9:15 a.m. They are coached by Alice Judd, a certified volunteer who Rannebarger said is vital to the KATS program.
“She’s a blessing,” he said.
Swimmers will get a chance to enter meets throughout the summer, culminating with the long pool state championships in late July.
Montana, Rannebarger said, is beginning to catch on to the year-round swimming trend, which has been prevalent in many other states for years. The best high school swimmers, he said, can’t afford to take time off when their competition is in the pool all year.
Philip Rempe, a returning top five finisher in two events at last year’s high school state championships, embraces the year-round commitment. He has been a member of KATS for 12 years.
“If you’re going to be a swimmer, you have to be dedicated,” Rempe said. “I think it’s worth it.”
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