2019 U.S. Club Swimming Coach of the Year: Ron Aitken, Sandpipers of Nevada

To see all of the 2019 Swammy Awards, click here.

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.

Sandpipers also finished 3rd in the USA Swimming Club Excellence standings.

Honorable Mentions:

  • 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.

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2 years ago

Congratulations coaches! Well deserved. I think it also warrants recognizing Kent Nicholson out of Sooner Swim Club in Norman, OK. Not a swimming power house state yet has produced some excellent athletes out of his 150 swimmer program like Aiden Hayes and Daniel Wilson. Both top performers at this years Juniors West and fast rising All time performances. So many great coaches Nationwide doing great work. Keep it up.

NM Coach
2 years ago

I was NOT one of the ones that was “scratching my head” when she decided to defer!

Ron has stayed the course with his philosophy…more coaches should follow his lead in that regard.

This is WELL DESERVED recognition!!!

2 years ago

You have done club coach of the year before!


Proud Aunt Judy Chinitz
2 years ago

Thank you for your wonderful coverage of this event! One small correction. Abby Dunford actually turns 14 on January 2nd!

2 years ago

if only they had a new pool!

Vegas Gold
Reply to  Doconc
2 years ago

At least they have nice pools to swim in these days in Vegas. I trained at DULA when it was falling apart lol

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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