June 14, 2012

Formula for success

Dalton Dolphins relay team united by friendship, skill

Dalton Dolphins swimmers Alex Mashburn, Donald Sener, Raul Valdez and Tyler Stephenson might give you four different responses if you ask why they are so good as a relay team.

But one of their coaches thinks she knows the right answer.

“They’re a very strong team and very well-rounded,” said Dalton assistant Olga Davis, the head age group coach for the Dolphins’ 12-and-younger swimmers.

“They’re also very well-bonded and good friends. I think the combination is perfect.”

Mashburn, Sener, Valdez and Stephenson — all four are 12 — make up a fearsome foursome in the pool for the summer league swimming and diving team. Two meets into the Chattanooga Area Swim League Blue Division schedule, the relay team is undefeated in both the 200 medley and 200 freestyle events for their 11-12 age group.

And they’ve posted times that impress even Dolphins head coach Charles Todd. The group won the 200-meter freestyle in 2 minutes, 8 seconds and the 200-meter medley in 2:32 to help the Dolphins pick up a 390-352.5 win Monday against Chattanooga’s Stuart Heights at the Dalton Recreation Center. In last week’s season opener, the Dolphins lost at Tennessee’s Signal Mountain 382.5-277.5, but the relay team won its two events, taking the 200-yard freestyle in 1:53 and the 200-yard medley in 2:08.

The Dolphins are in action again today at Ringgold and travel to Chattanooga’s Fairyland Club next Monday before returning home for a rematch against Signal Mountain next Thursday.

Todd expects good performances whenever this relay team is in the pool, and that won’t change at the league’s postseason City Meet, scheduled for July 13-14 in Fort Oglethorpe.

“With times like those, they can win the City Meet,” he said.

The relay team comes from all over, attending different schools and living in different cities but coming together to compete for the Dolphins. Valdez is a Dalton Middle student, Mashburn is from Cisco, Stephenson comes from Cleveland, Tenn., and Sener lives in Carrollton during the school year but with his mother in Dalton during the summer.

Still, when they get in or around the pool, Davis sees a connection.

“I see their personalities, and I see more people and friends than swimmers,” said Davis, who works most closely with “elite” swimmers in the Dalton Dolphins program.

Three of the team members — Mashburn, Valdez and Stephenson — swam together last fall for the Carpet Capital Aquatics Club and believe a friendship was built through time and wins.

“We would win every single relay we were in,” Valdez said, “and this relay is better now than then.”

Because he spends most of the year farthest away from Dalton, Sener could have easily been the odd kid out. But he knew Mashburn well enough to become the fourth member without that being a problem.

“I’ve swam with him and against him before,” Sener said.

Making relay teams comes down to being the fastest four, and Sener had to win and earn his spot on the team. When that happened during preseason practice, the other three welcomed it, Todd said.

“They train well and accepted the new guy, Donald, and let him come right in,” he said. “They’re together so much they do end up bonding in all areas.”

But they have several different ideas when asked why they’re such a good lineup.

Sener thinks it’s helpful that most of the team learned to swim at an early age. Stephenson, who learned at 2, agreed.

“I think it’s more experience,” Sener said. “I mean, all of us have been swimming for at least three years.”

Added Stephenson, “And we’ve all been swimming together for a while, too.”

Mashburn is the exception, having learned to swim three years ago.

“Three years ago this time I wouldn’t be able to survive in the water,” said Mashburn, who believes all four have shown “natural talent” in the water.

Valdez believes the medley wins come from each being “so fast” in his stroke. Mashburn does the butterfly, Sener handles the breaststroke, Valdez swims the backstroke and Stephenson finishes in the freestyle.

Todd echoed Valdez.

“Raul is a nationally ranked backstroker in the (USA Swimming) circuit. He’s probably the fastest of them all,” Todd said. “(Mashburn) is a backstroke specialist and pretty good on the butterfly as well. Donald is a great breaststroker and Tyler is pretty much the utility guy who you can put anywhere.”

In addition to serving as the head coach for the Dolphins and the Carpet Capital Aquatics Club, Todd heads up the programs at Dalton Middle and Dalton High, so he’s seen lots of talented swimmers through the years. But he had no shortage of words to describe how good this relay team can be, ranging from “dominant” to “dynamic.”

“It’s like a dynamic quadro, not duo,” he said. “It’s a pretty dynamic group.”

“If I have four studs like that — a nationally ranked backstroker, a real strong backstroker, butterflier and freestyle — then yeah, I can think of a number of different names for them. They won (Monday) by over 25 meters, so when we were finishing the other team was at the other end of the pool. We were that far ahead, so I call that dominance.”

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