Paced by 10-year-old Leon Pierre-Louis’ European Forces Swim League record 30.56 in the 50 freestyle, the Kaiserslautern Kingfish Swimming Club outdistanced a six-team field at its home meet at the Ramstein Aquatic Center, Jan. 5. Pierre-Louis was one of seven Kingfish to earn three first place finishes, joining his sibling Alexis, Timothy Meeker, Tyler Jones, Marcus Kennedy, Philip Osadsky, Evangeline McFarland and Meghan Stewart. The other squads at the meet were Eifel Sharks, Rota Tiburones, SHAPE Seals, Stuttgart Piranhas and Wiesbaden Wahoos.
The Kingfish are in their 38th year with 125 local swimmers ages 6 through 19. Throughout the European and Asian military community, including a small contingent from UAE, the EFSL supports 18 teams with a membership currently at 1,142 swimmers. Meets are held every week during the season with extensive travel making weekends quite hectic, but enjoyable, for the families. The league is also growing. The most recent addition was Portugal, which has now been competing for three years.
“Team spirit, sportsmanship, self-improvement, trying one’s best and having fun have been the monikers of the Kingfish for the longest time!” said head coach Kent “Chip” Bassett, who has been with the Kingfish for 13 years. “We have a veteran staff, all competitive swimmers, (Chris Markus, Jennifer DeVanna, Courtney Walinski, Sheri Beeker, Jacob Glasgow & Elizabeth McClain) that has been able to provide a positive competitive swimming experience for the swimmers and 84 families within the Kaiserslautern Military Community this 2018 to 2019 swim season.”
High school athletes Abigail Driskell, Ryan Kirby and John Tittel won gold medals in two events while Alayna Potter, Connor Mulrooney, Annika Zimmerer and Noah Lang all won golds in one event. The high school swimmers can earn a varsity letter if they achieve the criteria.
“Our 30 high school swimmers representing Kaiserslautern High School and Ramstein High School are working toward achieving their varsity letter in swimming,” said club president Tina Tarpen.
At a minimum these swimmers must make 75 percent of practices, 70 percent of meets, and either qualify for long distance or individual champs or earn 60 points. She said that though only the high schoolers can earn a varsity letter, all age groups are competing for the chance to represent the best of the EFSL in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, for the European Forces Championship Meet to be held March 2 to 3.
In spite of their obvious success, the program, like other sports programs in the military setting, has its challenges.
“Challenges the program faces are similar to those that many youth sport programs around the KMC may be experiencing. The constant rigor of the military compounds the ability to retain top talent and qualified coaches,” she said. But because of the tradition, organization and dedication of the athletes, coaches and parents, “every year since 1980, the Kingfish have shown perseverance and have been able to maintain our winning reputation as a force to be reckoned with within the EFSL,” Tarpen said.
Coaching the Kingfish is definitely a labor of love with long hours and much to do. Bassett’s day job is as the middle school principal at Sembach. After a long day in the trenches, he drives to Ramstein for several hours of practice, done in shifts. The assistants also have occupations other than the swim team, but they take their roles very seriously knowing they will be challenged at every practice because they are working with very young children just starting out, preteens, middle schoolers and with adolescents getting ready for college. The practices are staggered, the swimmers either completing their workout before school in the morning or after school. It is this mix of competition and teaching that keeps them coming back.
“These kids are very dedicated,” Bassett said. “Some of them even participate in other sports or activities. We want them to have well-rounded lives. We know they might not be able to make all the meets, so they understand what the rules are and we are all flexible.”
Each swimmer is allowed to compete in three events. They choose from among freestyle, backstroke, butterfly or breaststroke. All four are stressed during the practices and all of the swimmers train in all the events.
The next home meet is scheduled for Jan. 26. KMC will play host to seven EFSL teams and two host nation swim clubs, KSK & Aqua Kids.