2019 U.S. Club Coach of the Year: Ron Aitken, Sandpipers of Nevada
Editor’s note: this is the only new Swammy award that we’re giving out in 2019, and when it crossed my mind, it was hard to believe that we hadn’t before. As compared to our standard “U.S. Coach of the Year,” which focuses on senior international-level, pro, major college, and post-graduate swimming, this one is more focused on coaches who achieve high levels of success at the domestic level, especially in the age group ranks. We will generally try to focus this award on coaches who achieve whole-group development and significant improvements, rather than a coach who might have led one record-breaking superstar, though there are, of course, exceptions to every rule.
When USC commit Erica Sullivan announced last December that she would defer her enrollment at USC until after the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, there were some head scratches. Afterall, USC is home to one of the country’s top distance swimmers in Haley Anderson and one of the country’s top distance coaches in Catherine (Vogt) Kase – the head coach for U.S. open water at the Tokyo Olympics.
But there’s something to be said about sticking with what’s working. Katie Ledecky, for example, deferred enrollment at Stanford for a year for Rio, and that turned into 4 Olympic gold medals and 1 Olympic silver medal, plus some World Records to boot.
Ledecky is perhaps an apt comparison – not because Sullivan has yet achieved that level, but because Sullivan has emerged as a primary understudy for Ledecky in the women’s distance freestyle events after a historic 15:23 in the 1650 free last weekend in Texas. That makes Sullivan the 2nd-fastest women’s miler in USA Swimming history.
After ranking as the 3rd-best American in the newest Olympic event the 1500 free last year behind Ledecky and Ashley Twichell (the latter of whom is already going to Tokyo in open water), Sullivan’s development since then makes her a very serious contender to make the Olympic team. Ledecky and Leah Smith (8:10 and 8:16 last season) have a pretty good stranglehold on the 800 free for Americans, but Smith doesn’t venture up to 1500 too often, instead focusing on the 400 free and 400 IM.
Sullivan’s development is part of an unbelievable group of young distance swimmers in the Sandpiper ranks at the moment, developed by head coach Ron Aitken. In the 13-14 age group, 13-year old Katie Grimes and 13-year old Abby Dunford rank 24th and 28th, respectively, in USA Swimming history int he 1650 yard free. Paige Kuwata ranks in the top 100 in that age group with a 2019 swim as well. Luke Ellis ranks among the top 50 11-12 boys in mile history with an October swim, as does Sawyer Grimes in the boys’ 17-18 age group (15:05.23). Sawyer Grimes was the 6th-best American junior in the boys’ 800 free in 2019.
14-year old Arabella Sims and the 13-year old Grimes both hit their Olympic Trials cuts in the women’s 800 free this summer in the same race.
This is nothing new for Sandpipers coach Ron Aitken – he’s been developing great swimmers in the distance freestyles and beyond (Olympic gold and bronze medal-winning breaststroker Cody Miller grew up training with the club), but the success that the club has amassed in the distance freestyles this year is something special – validating Sullivan’s choice and creating a great high-performance atmosphere for her to train in.
- Ken Heis, Mason Manta Rays – What Ken Heis has done with the Mason Manta Rays, not only the international-caliber Foster Brothers, but the whole club, with 296 swimmers, training exclusively out of a single 8-lane, 25-yard pool for most of the year, is incredible. Especially when stacked up against mega-teams like NCAP. The team finished 4th this year in the USA Swimming Club Excellence standings
- Bruce Marchionda, TAC Titans – Bruce Marchionda made his big swimming breakthrough when he coached Claire Donahue from obscurity to the 2012 Olympic team at Western Kentucky. After that program folded, he landed in the Triangle area of North Carolina, where he’s again building a powerhouse program. National Age Group Record holder Claire Curzan is the known name, but the team earned their first Gold Medal recognition this season, leaping all the way to the 12th-best club in the country.
- Rob Collins, Sierra Marlins Swim Team – The Sierra Marlins Swim Team more than doubled their Club Excellence points this year, leaping to the top of the gold medal club standings. The club doesn’t have any current age group superstars like the above teams do, though they’ve produced plenty in the past, including sisters and Olympic medalists Alyssa and Haley Anderson, but has developed a well-rounded group including names like Junior Nationals bronze medalist Colby Mefford and Cal commit Mara Allen.