Something in the water

Western Pennsylvania producing some of the top swimmers in America

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Hundreds of All-Americans. Dozens of Division I athletes. State champions every year.

Western Pennsylvania is one of the most dominant regions in the country in producing high-level swimming talent -- so much so that when North Allegheny boys' and girls' swimming and diving coach Corky Semler says "there must be something in the water," he is not just talking about what athletes are drinking.

Only California produced more high school All-American swimmers than Pennsylvania last year. Since the 2004-05 school year, Pennsylvania ranks third behind California and Texas in All-Americans, though both states more than double it in population.

High school All-Americans are determined by qualifying times in each event.

"As far as our top talent, it's just as competitive here as it is anywhere else," said Pitt swimming and diving coach Chuck Knoles.

Pennsylvania has more high school All-American swimmers per capita than any of the top five All-American producing states.

And Western Pennsylvania is well represented in this talented state. At the PIAA swimming and diving championships last year, the WPIAL won two of the four team championships -- North Allegheny boys (Class AAA) and Oakland Catholic girls (Class AA).

"Western Pennsylvania has had more than its fair share of state championship teams," Knoles said. The Panthers have more than a handful of WPIAL swimming alumni on their men's and women's rosters.

Eight WPIAL schools placed in the top 10 of the four PIAA classes last season, and many have a good shot to be successful this year.

Those involved in Western Pennsylvania swimming say there are several reasons for the region's national success.

For Semler, it's raw talent. He said he and others have talked about why Western Pennsylvania has been able to produce the large number of All-Americans and Division I swimmers that it has.

"There's something about Western Pennsylvania kids that's a little bit special," he said. "There's a certain toughness in kids from this area that seems to lend itself to high-level athletics."

And many hone those skills from a young age.

North Allegheny seniors Jonathan Buerger and Mark Waugh started swimming competitively before the age of 10. Now both are headed to big-time colleges where they will swim -- Buerger signed a letter of intent to swim at Virginia and Waugh signed with Missouri.

When he started swimming, Waugh never thought he would become a college athlete in the sport.

"My parents always did," he said, "but I didn't really believe them."

Moon senior Zina Grogg did not know Pennsylvania trailed only California in All-American swimmers last year.

"It surprises me that we're second, but it doesn't surprise me that we're up there just because of how fast everything is around here," she said.

Grogg signed a letter of intent to swim at North Carolina State.

She and Ambridge senior Lindsay Vrooman, who signed a letter of intent to swim at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., said Western Pennsylvania's coaches are among the best in the nation.

"We've got a lot of great coaching," Vrooman said.

Semler, a member of the Pennsylvania Swimming Hall of Fame, agreed. He said swimmers are taught by elite instructors in every age group.

"Whenever there are quality coaches, you're going to get quality kids," he said.

And that success compounds over time. Good coaches breed great swimmers who inspire future generations to outperform them.

Another thing that helps Western Pennsylvania swimmers is the high volume of area pools. With a large number of school districts, WPIAL high schools are more likely to have a pool on campus or in the school district than schools in similar markets. Other states have larger districts with more schools and tend to combine resources.

The high volume of pools allows swimmers to get more time in the water during all seasons of the year.

Even Vrooman, whose school district does not have a pool, credited the facilities with Western Pennsylvania's aquatic prowess.

Vrooman, Grogg, Buerger and Waugh will leave for college in the coming months. But they all are proud to be a part of the storied swimming tradition of Western Pennsylvania.

"We're just lucky to be in this state and have all these fast people around us," Buerger said. "It makes you go faster."

Michael Sanserino: or 412-263-1722. First Published February 26, 2010 5:00 AM


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