By Nancy Young
MASON - This community has taken the plunge into Greater Cincinnati competitive swimming.
Using the 25-meter competition pool in the Mason Community Center that opened last year, the Mason Manta Rays swim team, led by Coach Ken Heis, is 6 months old and has 120 swimmers.
Mason Manta Rays swim coach Ken Heis, center, talks with his squad of swimmers prior to a Gold Group practice at the Mason Community Center.
(Michael Snyder photo)
The challenge of creating a team able to compete at the USA Swimming level enticed the Cincinnati native back after several years coaching at Clemson University and the Aiken-Augusta Swim League in Augusta, Ga.
"The city of Mason is determined to create a first-class, year-round program similar to the Cincinnati Marlins and Sycamore Flying Fish. It is very rare for a USA team to be sponsored by a city government, but Mason is providing us with the resources necessary to compete at that level," Heis said.
Those resources include a team of six coaches and the new aquatics center. Manta Ray swimmers practice six days a week.
Swimmers ages 5-18 are grouped according to age, ability, commitment levels and goals. The youngest swimmers alternate between 25-yard sprints and longer endurance runs as well as working on basic techniques. Older, more experienced swimmers practice sprints as well as 500-yard marathons, often using electronic timers in an effort to beat personal best times.
"I swam when I was younger, but stopped due to health problems and then became involved in other sports. When I decided to give swimming another try, I was attracted to Mason because it's a new team and I felt I could fit in better," said Elise Bascom, 16, a Lakota East student from West Chester.
Heis grew up competing for M.E. Lyons YMCA in Anderson Township.
"Young swimmers are fun to work with because they improve so quickly. Older swimmers are extremely responsive to good coaching. All of these kids are learning the values of sportsmanship and teamwork. Swimming provides physical, emotional and intellectual skills that will last them a lifetime," he said.
The Manta Rays will swim competitively year-round.
Local swimmers' options continue to increase. In addition to the Manta Rays and Mason High School swim team, Mason City Schools intend to expand the program with teams at the junior varsity and middle school levels for the 2004-05 school year. Mark Sullivan, an assistant coach for the Manta Rays, is overseeing the expansion as head coach for the school swim team.
Meanwhile, Mason's long-established summer swim team, the Water Moccasins, will continue in the Tri-County Swim League. That team included nearly 400 swimmers last year.
After hundreds of hours of practices and nearly a dozen meets, what does Heis think of his new team? "I was looking to come back to my hometown, and took a leap of faith when I joined the Manta Rays," he said. "Our success in the first year has been beyond our wildest hopes."
Manta Ray tryouts
The Manta Rays will hold tryouts in the spring. Manta Ray swimmers' fees range from $590 to $1,340 per year, not including a required Mason Community Center pass. For more information, visit www.masonswimming.org or call (513) 229-8502, ext. 7.
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