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Aquastorm again risks its claim of supremacy
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Aquastorm again risks its claim of supremacy

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Club swimming is sort of competitive swimming's unacknowledged stepchild.

For instance, almost in anonymity the Bismarck Aquastorm has won a combined total of 19 straight state long course and short course team titles. It goes for No. 20 this weekend in the state Long Course Swimming Championships at the Bismarck State College Aquatics and Wellness Center.

Aquastorm head coach Jeff Steele is expecting in the neighborhood of 500 swimmers to dive into the Aquatics Center pool during the three-day competition, which begins Friday. Ninety-nine events for athletes ranging in age from five to 21 are scheduled.

Some of the swimmers entered have familiar names. Vanessa Herrmann (University of Arkansas), Lexi Duchsherer (University of Arizona recruit), Carly Palmer (University of Wyoming), Erin Palmer (Century High School), Chris Birnbuam (Florida Tech) and Charlie Koebele (St. Cloud State) are among them.

Steele says it's a safe bet that many of the younger swimmers who compete this weekend will become familiar names in the high school and college swimming community in years to come.

"The ones you see in the top eight or 16 (places in high school) all year long are club swimmers," Steele noted.

Thirty five Aquastorm alumni have gone on to swim at the collegiate level and Herrmann was one of three North Dakota athletes who competed in the Olympic swimming trials.

Certainly, the Aquastorm has been the dominant feature on the North Dakota club swimming map in recent years. Still, Steele said it would be a mistake to expect his team to win in a walkover this weekend.

"(Fargo area) Northern Lights will be a big competitor. They've been creeping up on us each year, so this (meet) might be a good one," he observed.

The Northern Lights Swimming Association is one of three clubs drawing from the large pool of Fargo-West Fargo-Moorhead, Minn., talent. The others are the Fargo-Moorhead Gators and the West Fargo Flyers.

Other teams that will be represented in Bismarck this weekend are the Breckenridge (Minn.)-Wahpeton swim team, the Dickinson Dolphins, the Jamestown Jaws, the Mandan Marlins, the Minot swim club, the Grand Forks Red River Valley swim team, the Valley City Sharks and the Williston Sea Lions.

The Aquastorm has qualified a hefty delegation of 78 swimmers.

"The youngest is five and the oldest is 21," Steele said.

The 15-to-18 and 11-to-14 girls divisions will supply a significant part of the Aquastorm's team. The 11-to-14 girls division is where the greatest concentration of swimmers lies, according to Steele.

"The boys' (numbers) aren't nearly as big. ... A lot of our older swimmers are NCAA athletes who have come back to train with us this summer. One is Vanessa Herrmann, who competed in the Olympic Trials in June," Steele noted. "We have Erin Palmer, who just committed to Utah as a swimmer and runner, Carly Palmer is going to Wyoming, Lexi Duchsherer is going to the University of Arizona, and we have Charlie Koebele at St. Cloud. ... Mikayla Brackin goes to the University of Mary."

The 78 Aquastorm entrants represent only a fraction of the club's membership.

"This year we have a total of 310 kids on our team. ... Due to family vacations, summer sports and that type of thing, a good chunk of them are not competing at the state meet. We had about 120 at the state short course meet (in March)," Steele said.

At the state short course meet, swimmers compete in a 25-yard pool. The long course meet requires 50-meter lanes.

Steele, 43, was a two-time state runner-up in his high school swimming days at Bismarck High School, placing in the 200- and 500-yard freestyle events before graduating in 1996.

A shoulder injury sustained in high school ended his hopes of swimming at the University of North Dakota.

"That's how my coaching career started," he said, looking back on the injury.

He transferred to North Dakota State University and, while there, began his coaching career as a 20-year-old at Fargo North. He first coached club swimming in 2002 with the Fargo Gators.

In 2012 Steele moved back to Bismarck to coach the Aquastorm, a position he's held ever since. He coached the BHS boys for a season and the Century girls for three years, but his primary focus has been club swimming.

He's helped drive the Aquastorm membership from about 80 swimmers to over 300 with a staff of 14 since he became the head coach, and he said the zest for working with young swimmers has not abated.

"Vanessa Herrmann was the first Aquastorm kid to qualify for the Olympic Trials. That definitely got me excited," he said. "And the kids coming through this program and going off to college. ... That's pretty impressive for a club in the state of North Dakota."

He said helping young beginners become competitive swimmers is a rewarding experience.

"You teach them how to swim, how to push themselves and how to get ready to compete in life. ... I'm excited to do it," he said. "I learn something every day. If I quit learning, that's probably the time to be done."

Steele and Tom Wheeling, the Legacy girls coach, are the full-time members of the Aquastorm staff. Wheeling is the program and meet director. A recent addition is Alex Lucy, the former West Fargo Flyers coach.

The state meet need not be the end of the line for the swimmers assembled in Bismarck this weekend. For a select few, the state meet offers the opportunity to advance to the Futures Championships next week in West Fargo or the six-state Central Zone Championships next month in Westmont, Ill.

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