10 years with Piranha Aquatics

One of our goals this season is to post a monthly "Blog post" mid-month about swimming or coaching or a personal story of overcoming from one of our athletes.  To kick off this season, I am sharing my personal story as a personal reflection and story of Piranhas.  These are not just news for parents; hopefully you will share with your athletes as well.

Coach Caroline


Hi! I am Coach Caroline; the Head Coach, CEO, and founder of Piranha Aquatics. We are currently entering our 10th season in Salem with the Piranha Aquatics Swim Team, and I spent some time reflecting last past week on what that meant to me.  Many people do not know my "Swim Story", so I decided to share it with everyone.  This is published on my personal Facebook page, with some edits.

I cannot even begin to express the amount of gratitude I have for the past 9 years. Thank you to my friends, family, swim parents, and most of all, the surrounding community for support. 

Yours in swimming,

Coach Caroline


My Story

When I was ten, I cried during my first swim practice. And my second. And probably my third. Quite possibly for weeks. But I loved the water, and eventually, that water became the ONLY place I have ever felt truly at home.

I almost quit swimming when I was in 7th grade. I got a new coach who pushed me a little more than I preferred and I didn't like it. My parents made me stick it out. And that year, that coach lit a fire under me that has never been put out. (Coach Jen, I can't thank you enough for the push, and coach Drew for two more years of great coaching, but not for cracking a raw egg on my head or entering me with short course yard times at a long course meet).  I will never forget the moment when coach Jen told me "Keep swimming" during a distance set, and I looked at her and said "but I'm done!" and she looked at me with a look I will never forget, and moved me up a lane. That was the day it all "clicked"

Growing up, I had great coaches who worked all day and coached at night and I didn't even know people made careers out of coaching swimming. Growing up, we didn't have a pool in Salem and I was fortunate enough to have parents that had enough money and willingness to sacrifice their own free time to drive me to practices, meets, and help me chase my dream. And knowing what I know now, my parents were AMAZING sports parents. I outgrew my original YMCA team after my freshman year,  and switched teams to a year-round USA Club, and worked my tail off and earned a spot in the state meet my senior year in two individual events.

I was lucky enough to swim in college where I earned 4 school records and was a member of a conference championship team...where we beat out our rival by 1.5 points. Our rival had previously held the title for 16 years. It was, hands down, the MOST intense swim meet I have ever been to.  I chose to swim D3, and I believe and will argue to this day that the most passionate athletes choose to continue their careers in D3, because you really have to love a sport when it takes up so much time and you don't get a dime in scholarship money for your talent. I may regret turning down that D1 full ride every time I pay a school loan payment, but pursuing college athletics because of a love of the sport and what you learn from that pursuit was worth every penny.

I was even luckier after that, when, fresh out of college, I moved away from Salem (determined to never return), and landed a head coaching job, and later that year became the interim head coach for the Junior College where I coached 12 NJCAA All-American swims. I did all that while teaching 2nd-grade full time. 

That year, I learned that I also felt at home on the pool deck, that I was not meant for the college coaching arena, and that there was a career in coaching...Full time. People actually do this and make a living! I was hooked. I never had to wear a business suit again! Swimsuits and flip-flops for life! I then made the switch to full-time youth coaching at a small YMCA, and then in April of 2008, I moved back to Salem with the intent of going to grad school and coaching age groupers on the West Coast that fall.

While home figuring out the official next step, my mom made the comment that I always said I would come home and coach if Salem ever built a pool. (They had built the SCC while I was starting my coaching career). I remember laughing and saying "mom, I don't want to live here right now! I'm only 25! Maybe in 4 years"

Those pesky parents and their ways... she simply asked me how I would feel if someone else started a team here in that time.

Well.... we all know how this story pans out.

A week later I was talking to a random group of 20 people about my vision for a team in Salem. 

We don't like to talk about failures, but I think some of it deserves a mention because failures and setbacks can either make you or break you. And one of the things I believe the most is that it's the climb from the bottom that makes us stronger and that the sport of swimming taught me over and over and over how to pick myself up and try again. So 5 of my swim "failures" in chronological order are:

  1. I finished (embarrassingly) last in the 50 free at the state meet. 
  2. I was the top seed at my conference meet multiple times yet never won an individual title. 
  3. I didn't even make finals my senior year in college in one of my 3 individual events, and barely squeaked into finals in my other two events. 
  4. I never achieved my national cut I chased in college. 
  5. In 2011 I considered shutting down the Piranha program because I was so far in debt with the program I didn't know what to do. 
Our 10th year

Today marks the start of my 10th season with Piranhas. And wow, what a ride.

A few years ago I stumbled upon working with kids with Autism and turns out I'm pretty good at teaching them to swim. By the end of this swim season, we will have provided almost $20,000 in FREE private swim lessons to kids on the Autism spectrum over the past four years. We have created partnerships with the community and we are hosting FREE family swims for the special needs community almost 6 times a year.

We transformed Piranhas into a non-profit in 2014. I have a great board of directors that work tirelessly to help build the sport of swimming and help me create a financially stable program. A special thank you to Dr. Laurie Penix, who has been along for the ride the moment I said: "I need help".

I became an ASCA Level 3 coach. Only 15% of coaches in the US are a level 3 coach. (7% are level 4, 3% level 5-the highest level you can achieve. 75% of coaches are level 2 or 1). The last time I checked, I was the only level-3 coach in the greater Youngstown area.

I just got back from D.C. where I just spent a week starting a year-long ASCA fellowship project working with an amazing group of 6 peers and being connected to some of the most influential members of the swimming community. (And that's the short version of this trip).

Today, we hosted our first community Splash Class of the year, where my oldest athletes come in and willingly and selflessly give back to our community by teaching the next generation of Piranhas and potential Piranhas an hour-long swim clinic. Community sponsors cover the costs of the clinic so we can offer these for FREE to our community.

Today, I watched with so much pride Kristen Reynolds, our Lead Competitive Coach, work with our two top levels of athletes on their first day back and wondered how in the hell I got so lucky to have a coach that I could trust so much to not even have to question what she does with our athletes. We may argue over business crap, but I trust her implicitly to take the kids I have loved working with for years and make them even better than I could.

Which makes me even luckier! ....because I can focus on what I love most: teaching kids to fall in love the sport of swimming. I get to spend each and every day working with our youngest athletes and our entry level competitive kids, being creative, fun and engaging.... and challenging myself every day to bring my best, authentic self to our athletes.

I also am lucky because I get to teach your children to swim. I taught 74 (!!!) kids swim lessons this summer and I loved each and every one of them. I love how I grow as an instructor with the most challenging kids, and the rapport I build with your kids when I get to know each and every one.

I love these swim lesson and entry-level kids. Somewhat because they think I'm funny instead of weird.... but mostly because I care deeply about each and every child I work with-I want them all to succeed in their own way; to start where they are and see that they can achieve something if they work for it. I want them to learn how to fail, how to work for something long-term they really want, and how to support others because no one can do it alone.  I want to give back to a sport that taught me so much, and to "pay it forward" for all the nurturing and leadership my own coaches provided to me. 

I can't begin to tell you the amazing power coaches have. When a coach believes in an athlete, that athlete can achieve amazing things. I was SO lucky to have so many positive and influential coaches (and teammates) in my life. The two I haven't mentioned yet were Kristie Stacie-who somehow made me magically believe I could and then do things in the water I didn't know I was capable of-and got me to that state meet of my dreams, and my college coach, Michael Gallagher, who of all things, taught me to "control the controllables, McDermott". 

I owe this sport my life. It took a shy, quiet, weird little girl; gave her a voice, confidence, and ultimately led me to discover my passion.  Which I have, through hard work and some luck, turned into a career. In my hometown! What a gift.

I'm still here in Salem-my hometown- almost a decade later, blazing my own path and career in aquatics. I've had to redefine what success in the swim arena looks like for myself and I admittedly spend a lot of energy trying not to compare myself to other coaches in more population-dense areas. Coaching swimming in a rural area is HARD. You have to find, build and nurture kids to love the sport; they don't come to you. But here I am...I am a full-time coach, built my own career, work for myself and am deeply in love with my career and life.m.

I had no idea this would be the path my life would take. I reflect often where I would be in life if my parents had let me quit swimming, because it's not what I do, it is who I am.

I cannot begin to express enough gratitude to every parent that has trusted me with your child, even if it was only for a few lessons or if it has been for years. I hope I have made their lives better because I know that I would not be the person I am today or doing what I do without your children and your support.

We all hang up our towel at some point, and when you do your best times become fuzzy, but the lessons you learn from this sport can make you succeed at life.

It's been quite a decade of growth, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. I have the best job on the planet; making a difference one splash at a time.

Cheers to a decade of swimming; and a lifetime of memories.

Coach Caroline