Swimming has always been a part of Rene Piper’s life.
She was in the pool at age 4. She swam competitively in her youth, starred on her high school team in her native Indiana, and earned a scholarship to college. She cut her coaching teeth in Sarasota, where she was a successful club coach who also started the swimming program at Lakewood Ranch High, leading it to three high school county championships. Her daughters also have been college swimmers.
So, when she was asked to take over a loose collection of swimmers in New Tampa who couldn’t seem to keep a coach longer than six months, Rene jumped at the challenge.
What started as 11 swimmers in 2013 is now 111 strong as the Pipeline Swimming Club — which has its largest of three training locations at the pool at Tampa Palms Golf & Country Club, has become Tampa Bay’s fastest-growing swim club.
It was a tragedy that originally brought Piper to Tampa Palms, as previous coach Alex Richardson left to take over at Westchase after its popular director of aquatics Kelley Allen was murdered, devastating the Tampa-area swimming community.
“They just wanted me to help,” Piper says. “There were four or five hundred swimmers (in Tampa) that were just in shock. Some of what we did was grief counseling.”
At the time, Piper was an assistant at St. Petersburg Aquatics under head coach Fred Lewis. Lewis had close ties to the Tampa club swimming community, and asked Piper if she wanted to head north and start the biggest and best swimming club in Tampa.
That may have seemed ludicrous, considering at the time there was some doubt about whether the club would even survive. Piper moved to Tampa Palms, just a half mile from the pool at the country club, and got to work.
“I really felt at home (in Tampa Palms),” Piper says. “They welcomed me in and after they’d gone through four coaches in three years. I saw it as a challenge to grow the team.”
Now, four-and-a-half years later, the club boasts 240 swimmers training at three different facilities in Tampa Palms, New Port Richey and Eastlake Woodlands.
Piper, who swam for legendary coach Doc Councilman at Indiana University in Bloomington, has brought in top coaches to help build the program and develop swimmers, like Peter Banks, former head coach and director of aquatics for the Brandon Swim & Tennis Club (BSAC) and the Blue Wave Swim Team. One of his former students, three-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist Brooke Bennett, is also on the staff at Pipeline, as well as former FSU and South African National Team swimmer Jared Pike.
With that kind of instruction, Pipeline is shooting high.
“They had four coaches who all stayed around for six months and said there was no talent in Tampa Palms, and I thought that was absolutely not true,’’ Piper says. “We think we’ll have 6-8 kids going to Olympic trials in Omaha in 2019.”
West Meadows resident Vanessa Goldblum is a parent to one of the rising stars in the PIPELINE program. Goldblum's daughter, McKaley, has been swimming for less than a year and made it to the summer Florida Age Group Championship (Jr Olympics) with Pipeline's training. Vanessa Goldblum swam for Banks' for 11 years in Brandon, starring for Durant High in Plant City and at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.
"The first time I bought McKaley here, she just loved it." Goldblum said. "The sport is a huge part of our lives and having Peter here is fantastic. The staff at PIPELINE is amazing and it's like we're one, big, happy family.
McKaley, unlike Pier, wasn't in the pool at four years old. Rather, she was a volleyball player much of her young athletic life, and only tried out for swimming her freshman year, after the high school swim season ended. However, her rise has been meteoric. Piper projects McKaley will be a finalist (in the Top 8) at the high school state meet in either the 100 or 200 yd freestyle events.
At McKaley's first high school meet of the season, she won both the 200yd freestyle and the 100yd backstroke. "At that first competition I was scared," McKaley said. "But I talked with my coaches and they made me feel comfortable. They push me, but I have a lot of support from them. They make me want to get up in the morning.”
Abigail Leisure, McKaley’s teammate at Freedom, also is a member of Pipeline. Leisure is particularly strong in the breaststroke and Piper thinks she’ll be in the top three in the state in the event. Pipeline also has swimmers competing for Wharton, King, all three Wesley Chapel high schools and others.
Carly Joerin, a 14-year-old Liberty Middle schooler, was one of the original 11 swimmers that Piper inherited at Tampa Palms. Her mother Tibbie Farnsworth says that without Piper, the program would have never survived, and because of Piper, her daughter has thrived.
“I think its their approach,’’ Farnsworth said. “They are involved in the kids’ lives. And they make it fun for the kids. It’s competitive, but it’s fun. They work hard because it’s fun. They brought in a great coaching staff that has the same philosophy.”
It’s the little touches, Farnsworth says, like noticing when someone has had their braces taken off, asking about a test in school or even having nicknames for the swimmers. When Carly showed up for 5 a.m. practice on Aug. 31, her 14th birthday, the coaches were there with a cake.
“Isn’t that awesome?,’’ Farnsworth says.
Pipeline isn’t just a club for competitive swimmers, Piper says. The club offers mommy-and-me swim classes for toddlers. There is a Scare D Cats program for adults who are non-swimmers. There are active Pipeline members from five years old to 64.
“Youth swimming programs are a perfect place to find an identity,” Pike said. “Being part of a club became my identity and I stuck with it. It teaches dedication, discipline, life lessons and there’s benefit to the social aspect of it. A swimming friend is a friend for life.”
Pipeline holds tryouts every Monday and Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Tampa Palms Golf & Country Club pool at 5811 Tampa Palms Blvd. For more information, visit PipelineSwimming.com, or call 941-737-4455.