How some Shawnee girls became the swimming pool-less swim champs

How some Shawnee girls became the swimming pool-less swim champs

The story of the Shawnee High girls swim team seems straight out of Hollywood, part Boys in the Boat, part ‘Cool Runnings.’

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Feb 26, 2024, 12:00pm CST

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Feb 26, 2024, 12:00pm CST

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Valarie Colburn still has the photos from the night of the tornado stored on her phone.

They show the outside of the YMCA in Shawnee, and even though the huge aquatics center is lit only by car headlights, you can see the devastation. Almost every large pane in a towering wall of windows is blown out.

Daylight would reveal the entirety of the mess inside. A pool full of glass. A filtration system that was destroyed. Walls embedded with glass. 

But that night of the storm, Colburn couldn’t believe what she was seeing in those first pictures.

“I was just devastated,” she said. 

She knew, after all, the challenge about to befall the Shawnee High School swim teams. Both the boys and girls trained at the YMCA, and in the town a little less than an hour east of Oklahoma City, there were no other indoor pools long enough for a proper practice.

The Shawnee girls were coming off back-to-back state championships. How were they ever going to get ready to try to win another one this winter?

“We had to keep plugging away,” said Colburn, who co-coaches the teams with Bob McNeil. “It was gonna be hard, but we did it.”

You read that correctly: the Shawnee girls repeated as the Class 5A state champions.

Swimming champs who had no swimming pool.

It’s a story straight out of Hollywood, part “Boys in the Boat,” part “Cool Runnings.”

“I can’t even express how proud I am of them,” Colburn said. “They just had a goal in mind, and they worked for it.”

How the Shawnee girls did it, though, was extremely unconventional, but they had no other choice after a tornado tore through the west side of Shawnee on April 19. The National Weather Service ultimately rated it an EF2 with winds between 111 and 135 miles per hour.

One of the hardest-hit buildings was the YMCA.

Coburn quickly realized repairs to the pool area would take months, so she started making calls, looking for pools in town that would give time to the high school team. Her first call was to the manager of the city pool, which has a six-lane outdoor pool that the team had used occasionally during the summers.

Through tears, Colburn said, “We’re gonna need that pool this summer.”

Shawnee trained there throughout the summer. The city even agreed to keep the pool open for the team a couple extra weeks after its normal Labor Day closing. 

But the conditions weren’t always optimal. 

“We had some hundred-degree weather,” Colburn said, “so we had to be really careful with the kids. The water was up to like 95, 97 degrees, which that’s like swimming in a bathtub.”

Once the city pool closed for the season, the Shawnee swimmers spent a few weeks using the Elks Club’s outdoor pool. It was only a 15-yard pool, though, 10 yards shorter than regulation.

With cooler temperatures coming and outdoor pools closing, Colburn reached out to the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She knew the FireLake Wellness Center, about five miles south of the high school, had an indoor pool, and the Citizen Potawatomi Nation agreed to allow Shawnee High to use it.

But it was small. Only 10 yards long.

“So,” Colburn said, “we had to get creative for how we were going to do the workout.”

The answer: bungee cords.

They were tied around the swimmers, then other swimmers held onto the bungee cords while on the pool deck providing resistance and making it more like the swimmers were going 25 yards before making their turns.

“It was the true meaning of teamwork,” Colburn said, “because your partner was up on the deck, holding you by the bungee cord, holding you in place.”

Eventually, the partners would switch places.

Using bungees was something the team had done occasionally when it was training at the YMCA. The swimmers would hook them onto the starting blocks to vary the workout, adding resistance and building endurance.

But the bungees weren’t a change-of-pace option this past season.

They were a necessity.

It wasn’t ideal, and sometimes, the swimmers just went back and forth in the 10-yard pool.

“They got really good at turns,” Colburn said with a laugh.

And when they needed a break, they did dry-land training. Lots of running. Tons of cardio. Anything that could help with stamina and endurance once they got back into the water.

“We did the best we could,” Colburn said, “and the kids, no matter what was thrown at us, they were troopers. They hung in there.”

Until the season started in early November and the team had a chance to compete in 25-yard pools, however, no one had any idea if the training was working. Were they close to the times they’d swum before? Were they making progress? Were they going to be competitive?

At the first meet, Shawnee’s times were not great.

“I could see the look in their eyes,” Colburn said. 

She brought the worried swimmers together.

“It is the way it is,” she remembers telling them. “We’re going to keep on trying. We’re going to keep on working.”

Slowly but surely, Shawnee’s times improved, and at regionals the first weekend of February, the Wolves gave notice they were a contender for another state title. They won the regional title, scoring 355 points and besting Tulsa Bishop Kelley.

Almost every swimmer had a personal best.

But then the first day of the state meet, Shawnee had swims that Colburn terms “so so.” Not terrible, but not good enough to win state.

The second day opened with the 200-yard medley relay. Shawnee hadn’t swam well enough in the preliminary round to make the A final, but instead of letting disappointment linger, the relay team rallied to win the B final.

Together, Tenielle Kidd, Mikah Teape, Nylena Davis and Harlee Bullard put up their best time ever.

“And that just kind of started everything,” Colburn said. “The other two relays, those girls were so excited for what (the medley relay) had pulled off and points that we weren’t planning on.”

Shawnee went on to win both the 200 freestyle relay and the 400 freestyle relay with Gracyn Simpson, Ashley McDonald, Clara Timmons and Kimberly Albers.

Those golds catapulted Shawnee to the state title.

“All I could think is, ‘I can’t believe we pulled this off,’” Colburn said.

If it isn’t enough that a swim team won a state title without a swimming pool, this was also Shawnee’s first season without standout Piper McNeil. She led Shawnee to back-to-back state titles, won eight individual state titles, the maximum for any Oklahoma high school swimmer, and set numerous state records.

McNeil now swims at Missouri.

“Was it awesome having Piper on the team?” Colburn said. “Yes, you want the No. 1 swimmer in Oklahoma. That was a dream to have her.

“But (the returning swimmers) have known Piper for so long, and … she helped them get to where they were, to be better swimmers. She pushed them. So I think they were bound and determined to carry on what Piper started.”

But after the circumstances of the season, this year’s team has its own legacy. Its own mark. Its own story.

It’s a tale of perseverance.

“They knew they had to step up,” Colburn said, “and they did.”

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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