Brian Via winced when he pulled himself out of the pool at the natatorium at the University of Maryland Sunday. The 17-year-old Herndon High senior had just won the boys 1500-meter freestyle at the Potomac Valley Senior Long Course Championships, overcoming a torn tendon in his right elbow and a recent bout with swine flu to win the race in 16 minutes and 4.62 seconds.
Via was one of three swimmers representing the McLean-based Fish swim club — the team that produced Olympian and 1500 free world record holder Kate Ziegler — in the race, further solidifying the club’s growing reputation for producing successful distance swimmers.
At this weekend’s meet, Fish swimmers qualified for 17 spots in championship heats of middle-to-long distance events (400 meters and up), while earning only three spots in non-distance championship heats. Three Fish swimmers competed in the girls 800 Sunday, while on Thursday, three were seeded in the girls 1500 and four in the boys 800.
Fish athletes earned first and third place in the boys 800, with Michael Flach, 18, winning in 8:22.04 and Adam Pennington, 17, placing third with a time of 8:36.08.
“It’s pretty obvious their strength is distance,” Curl-Burke Coach Pete Morgan said. “Now, whether Ray [Coach Ray Benecki] considers them a distance program you’d have to ask him. But I would say he takes great pride in it.”
Despite the club’s reputation for excellence in the sport’s most grueling events, Benecki rejects the notion that the Fish is a distance program, even expressing disdain for the term.
“It’s a miscategorization to say we’re a distance program,” he said, pointing to the fact that Ziegler, 21, made the cut for the Olympic trials in the 100 free and was a champion sprinter as a youth.
“Kate was so successful in the eight and 1500 because she took a lot of speed to those events,” Benecki said.
He emphasizes the versatility of his swimmers, saying they’re capable of sprinting or enduring distance events.
“Distance isn’t a very glamorous event,” Benecki said. “It’s very easy to miscategorize a team as a distance team.”
But the team’s success in distance events can’t be ignored. In addition to Ziegler, who still practices with the club, is Chloe Sutton, a former Fish swimmer. Now California-based, Sutton qualified for this month’s world championships in Rome in the 400, 800 and 1500 freestyles.
“That’s what we train for,” Via said after his win.
Fish swimmer Caylyn Tate, 17, finished fourth with a time of 9:17.62 in the girls’ 800 and said team workouts emphasize building strength first and adding technique later.
“For us everything links around endurance,” said Tate, who recently graduated from Potomac Falls High School and will swim for William & Mary next season.
The key, senior assistant Norm Wright said, is conditioning swimmers for a wide spectrum events.
“It’s the belief you can take somebody who can swim a long time and make them faster,” he said, “but you can’t take a fast swimmer and make them a distance swimmer.”
He said training swimmers in distance gives them the endurance and strength to finish strong in any event.
Having Ziegler, a four-time world champion in the 800 and 1,500 freestyles, doesn’t hurt, either.
Retired Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club coach Riley Eaton, the Potomac Valley Swimming chair of senior swimming who organized this weekend’s meet, said Benecki’s relationship with Ziegler likely has boosted the team’s image as a distance program.
“It’s kind of a symbiotic kind of thing because you really have to spend time with that athlete,” Eaton said.
But Wright said The Fish was strong in distance before Ziegler developed into the world-class figure that she has become, and that her success merely raised the profile of the club as one that excels in distance events.
“It seems as though they’ve always had pretty good distance swimmers,” he said. “Then it built and with Kate it obviously took a pretty big step forward.”
Girls 800 free: Rachael Burnett, 17, Potomac Marlins, 9:02.92; Boys 1,500 free: Brian Via, 17, The Fish, 16:17.72; Girls 200 back: Janet Hu, 13, Curl-Burke, 2:19.22; Boys 200 backstroke: Brady Fox, 18, Rockville-Montgomery, 2:04.02; Girls 100 freestyle: Kristen Moores, 20, Curl-Burke, 56.50; Boys 100 free: Eric Knight, 22, Mason Swim Team, 51.58; Girls 200 butterfly: Elizabeth Pepper, 16, Rockville-Montgomery, 2:15.78; Boys 200 fly: Sean Stewart, 18, Rockville-Montgomery, 2:03.28; Girls 200 medley: Janet Hu, 13, Curl-Burke, 2:23.09; Boys 200 medley: Tom Koucheravy, 24, Mason Swim Team, 2:10.00; Girls 400 free relay: Curl-Burke C; Boys 400-free relay: Curl-Burke A.