Senior Alex Ambuhl placed 10th in the 100-yard freestyle at last season’s state meet and led off a pair of relays. He used to dive, as well, qualifying for state in the 1-meter event as a sophomore. Photo by Joel Koyama • email@example.com
These are the golden years for the Fridley boys' swimming and diving team.
The Tigers' sixth-place finish at the Class 1A state meet last season was a best-ever showing. Junior Colter Allen and senior Alex Ambuhl hold a combined five school records and are within reach of five more. And 43 boys make up the largest roster coach Mark Sielaff has directed since taking over the program in 2006.
"Even if I were to get injured and be out the rest of the season, I'd say right now I am very grateful and proud of what we have accomplished these past few seasons," Ambuhl said.
But there should be more to celebrate. Sielaff said Allen and Ambuhl "told me the week before the season started that they were figuring out where they wanted their names to go on the record board. They are really motivated kids who bring along other kids."
Allen and Ambuhl have swum a combined 11 varsity seasons. Approaching last season's team success at the state meet depends greatly on the program's ability to nurture the talents of less experienced swimmers.
Putting two relay teams in the top 16 at state, which Sielaff considers a "very attainable" goal, will require two newer swimmers to excel. Graduation and Alberto Orejuela's decision to remain with his club team cost Fridley several points from last year's state meet performance.
"It leaves a big hole," Ambuhl said. "We lost two core swimmers and the points don't lie."
Another harsh reality: Fridley swimmers typically start competitive swimming late and on a part-time basis.
"An endurance sport like swimming benefits a lot from year-round training, but it's not practical for a lot of the kids in the district," Sielaff said. "That's why I like to say it's about maximizing the potential they have to improve because we only see them for three months and you have to pay attention to a lot of things at once to get them there."
For his part, Sielaff keeps swimmers engaged and motivated with statistical feedback, posting results on a wall and encouraging his guys to top their personal bests.
In the water, Allen and Ambuhl give the Tigers two outstanding measuring sticks. Allen placed second in both the 200-yard individual medley and 100-yard butterfly at state. Ambuhl placed 10th in the 100 freestyle and led off both of Fridley's all-state relays, the sixth-place 200 freestyle and eighth-place 400 freestyle.
In addition, Ambuhl is 43-hundredths of a second from resetting Fridley's oldest program record. Jason Dahl's time of 22.04 seconds in the 50 freestyle has endured since 1987.
Ambuhl's efforts used to include diving, as well. As a sophomore, he qualified for state in two relays and the 1-meter diving competition, showcasing a rare combination of skill. He gave up diving as a junior but not before inspiring Gavin Madkins to join the team.
Madkins, who placed 16th at state last season, passed on a love for diving to AJ Morris, who in turn recruited five more divers for this season's team. Morris, a football player with a blonde mohawk, makes an impression.
"When he walks up to you it's like, 'This guy is interesting,'" Madkins said.
Morris' pitch: "I go up to younger kids because they are more open-minded and I'll ask if they are doing winter sport. If they say no, I tell them to try diving. I tell them, 'You get to walk around in a Speedo. All the girls will be there looking at you.'"
Diving is serious business for Morris, who in a little more than two seasons went from going into the water flat on his back the first day to a promising diver gaining interest from colleges. He hopes to join Madkins at state this spring and fuel the program's budding notoriety.
Last season at state, Madkins said, he was asked "'Fridley swimming? That's not your thing is it?'
"We have a sense of pride that we came up from being underdogs," Madkins said.
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574