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Shirley teen dives into swimming at the national level

Shirley teen dives into swimming at the national level
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SHIRLEY — When Sam Folger showed up for swim team tryouts at the local pool, the coach said he was too young.

“She told him he could come, but she wouldn’t talk to him,” said his mom, Katrina Drew.

But the coach kept an eye on him and soon changed her mind. He was 4 years old.

Now 15 and finishing his freshman year at Ayer Shirley Regional High School, Fogler has participated in national level competitions and won distinction as “fastest swimmer on the East Coast” in two events, the Butterfly 100 and 200 meter, respectively. “He never even took swim lessons,” Drew said.

His first competitive tryout came when he was 6 and in kindergarten.

After a couple of summers with his hometown swim team, The Penguins, Fogler joined the YMCA in Fitchburg, where he had to swim a pool length to qualify for a championship meet and stay submerged for 18 seconds. When his underwater time came in at 19 seconds, he cried, Drew said, disappointed not to have hit the mark. She and his coaches set him straight. “No, Sam, that’s better!” they said.

Fogler recalls that he did his best. “My coach said ‘don’t breathe.’ I didn’t and I made it,” he said.

The story illustrates Fogler’s commitment, early on, to a sport that is his only extra-curricular focus today.

He’s learned a lot since then, perfecting techniques, gaining speed and developing his signature stroke. At age 7, a coach told his mom that Fogler should be on a U.S .team by age 10. “It was a big commitment,” she said.

Fogler’s tenure with the Montachusett YMCA Regional Team lasted five more years. He now competes with the Greenwood Swimming Club, based at WPI in Worcester, which has an Olympic-sized, multi-lane pool.

On certain days each week Fogler and his younger sister, Lorelei, 14, also a GSA member, get up before dawn for the drive from Shirley to Worcester to attend before-school swim sessions. This rigorous routine may also include after-school practice, often the same day. Fogler says he hates getting up at 4 a.m. but if that’s what it takes — so be it.

“I love swimming and I want to get better,” he said.

His mom has no doubt that Fogler has the right stuff, and maybe even more important, the right coach, Greenwood Swimming Club head coach Don Lemieux.

A past Mr. Universe runner-up and former Mr. America whose hands-on athletic credits do not include swimming, Lemieux is a coach, first and foremost, who believes that no matter what the sport is, it’s training that counts. That is, if the athlete has talent and works hard

In a separate phone interview, Lemieux talked about what it takes to make the grade on his teams. “I think of the 140 members, the main reason they join is their parents,” he said. “It’s a challenging program.” But those who stick with it need self discipline as well as talent, he said. “They must want to keep working…it’s tough.”

As for Olympic dreams, it’s all about a work ethic that’s about as tough as it gets .”Be careful what you wish for,” he mused. “I’ve had one Olympian. Samantha Arsenault,” who won a U.S. Olympic Gold Medal in Sydney, Australia in 2000. “She never missed a practice,” he said.

That said, it’s not a sacrifice for athletes who truly love their sport. “They could do it all day,” he said. Basketball players “live at the court,” he said. “Swimmers love the feeling of being in the water.”

The hard part is getting better every year. Like runners who train, get faster then hit a plateau. Trimming those added seconds from their time becomes a big challenge, he said.

Lemieux studied coaching at Springfield College, where he learned the secret to success, for a coach: stick to a single sport. He coached basketball, baseball and football, respectively, before he switched gears. “Something about it (swimming) intrigued me,” he said. So he learned all there was to know about the sport. “I traveled all over, worked with the best,” he said, including U.S. National team staff.

Today, after many years as a swimming coach, he can spot talent and true grit. “I can see who has potential,” he said, “which basically means you’ve done nothing” but you can. He watches his swimmers during their workouts, notes their body positions, how they move. Then he trains them to do “100 things more to be really good,” he said.

To be best in the world takes even more.

Skill, determination, dedication. And getting to the pool on time.

“Time management is key,” he said. Arsenault, for example, got up at 3:15 a.m. for swim practice.

Whether Fogler or anyone on his team — some of whom he’s been swimming with for years — get to the Olympics or not, (the next trials are in 2020) some of them have achieved impressive goals already.

For Fogler, who has stacked up a lot of trophies and missed a few “big meet” cuts along the way, the next goal is to swim faster. “I’ve got to get fast enough,” he said. Say, swim four pool lengths (200 meters) in under two minutes. He’s come very close, but a few seconds make all the difference.

Lemieux said he’s coached many talented young swimmers over the years. “I’ve had great students,” he said. During his tenure, GSC has given out at least 300 scholarships, he said. “It’s a great feeling.”

This summer, Fogler got a scholarship to attend the USA Swimming Select Camp in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Earlier this season, he spent a week at swim camp at the University of Virginia. Like Greenwood, camps like these are for swimmers who are serious about the sport.

Fogler was chosen for the USA Swimming Select Camp, which picks the fastest in each East Coast event and invites them to go there to train together. Fogler’s 100 and 200-meter speed paid off and he made it. “He’s always been a flyer,” Drew said.

Asked about future college plans, Fogler said he’s aiming for the University of Michigan, where former Olympic champion Michael Phelps now coaches. “Also, Tom Brady went there,” he said.

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