Swimming: With some Phelps 'influence' Butler's O'Toole is a WPIAL title threat

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Senior swimmer Stephanie O'Toole has returned to Butler High School after three years in Maryland.

A senior, O'Toole comes to Butler with the rich swimming background of the North Baltimore Swim Club, which is famous for producing 19 Olympic medal winners, including Michael Phelps.

In contrast, the Golden Tornado swim program is younger. It's a program that has recently built a participation base and is becoming competitive in the WPIAL. And a convergence of coaching, talent and program growth has made O'Toole's transfer a win-win situation.

A few weeks ago, O'Toole used her speed to make a major splash at North Allegheny, breaking a pool record in the 100-yard breaststroke that she had set as an eighth-grade swimmer with the Fox Chapel Swim Club in 2009. But on Jan. 14, O'Toole was coming off a few weeks of hard training.

"I wasn't feeling very well in the water that day," O'Toole said. "I was just really tired from training."

Butler coach Dave Bocci was understanding, yet pragmatic.

"I told her it doesn't matter how you feel, you just have to be big in these races," Bocci said. "And she blew it out."

O'Toole swam the event in 1:04, dropping a second from her time in 2009. She also set a North Allegheny pool record in the 200-yard individual medley at 2:05.4.

O'Toole was pushed as she set the records, but she said she doesn't need other swimmers to motivate her.

"You have to push yourself when you want to do your best. In the end it's your time that's going to be up on the board -- not someone else's," she said.

"I think [O'Toole] has had very good training in the past," Bocci said. "She's had very good teaching, all her stroke mechanics are solid -- that makes the IM a natural fit for her. She's a hard worker. Most importantly, she has the desire and heart to compete. You put all that together, and it's a formula for success."

O'Toole was swimming with North Baltimore while living with her mother for her first three years of high school. She did not swim for her high school team (Towson High School), because the North Baltimore club provided the intensity O'Toole needed to train for and swim in Olympic trials this past summer.

After the summer, O'Toole decided to move back to Butler with her father and swim for Butler's varsity program in preparation for the next phase of her life: college.

This swim season is also a return for Bocci to Butler. He coached the Tornado 13 years ago before becoming an assistant swimming coach with Duquesne University. But the Dukes cut the men's swimming program, motivating Bocci's eventual return to Butler.

With O'Toole's experience at the elite competition level, Bocci's college-style training has proved to be a major advantage.

"I take my season plan and I take where my goals are for end of year," Bocci said. "I model all my training and all my sets off of the season plan. We'll look at where [O'Toole] wants to be, and shape a set around that."

In a nutshell, Bocci's season plan accounts for all of the goals and competition dates of the season. The plan uses real metrics to make O'Toole's training intensity appropriate, depending on the date and "weightiness" of her next competition. The metrics are time, distance and exertion level (determined as a measure of heart rate).

"Some days we're sprinting where the rest [between intervals] is long, and the time to hold [in the water] is very fast," Bocci said. "Other days, the swim is longer and the rest is shorter."

In order to verify that O'Toole maintains certain exertion levels, her heart rate is measured during rest periods.

Bocci said season plans give swimmers "guide rails" on their training paths -- they're what allow high-level swimmers such as O'Toole to keep improving in any environment. But the effects also are being seen on others on the team.

"One example is that I have a guy on the team, Ryan Deemer, who can swim a 1:48 in the 200-[freestyle]," said Bocci. "He can do the type of sets she can do, so she's not alone in her sets."

O'Toole and Deemer train together, and each swimmer posts times that push the other swimmer.

"Without her being here, Ryan wouldn't have been getting better and better," said Bocci.

Overall, O'Toole and Butler are a match for swimming success.

"I wondered if I could give her the environment to be successful," Bocci said. "And in the end, I didn't have to worry about it at all. She took control of the situation and she's done very well."

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