The Y-Neptunes have a long history of developing competitive swimmers
By Greg Gulas
As the Downtown YMCA prepares to celebrate its 130th birthday, a program that was started nearly 60 years ago has withstood the test of time and continues to aid area high schools and its many students with swimming aspirations.
First formed in 1954 when Sherman “Lefty” Law took an idea and saw it through to fruition, the Y-Neptunes originally had 10 boys on its charter team; swelling to 63 strong over the next three years.
Law, who served as the program’s first coach, was able to add a girls team by 1958 with 23 hopefuls.
Under Law’s tutelage, which lasted until 1970, one of the program’s top alums, Ross Wales, would later earn a bronze medal (he finished behind Mark Spitz and Doug Russell) in the 100-meter butterfly at the 1968 Summer Olympics (held in Mexico City) while starring at Princeton University.
Another alum, Campbell’s Melanie Valerio (she graduated from Gates Mills Hawken High and was a top swimmer at the University of Virginia) earned a gold medal by swimming in the preliminary heats as a member of the U.S. women’s 4x100 meter freestyle relay team at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Today, the YMCA continues to show support for the community by opening its doors for area high school programs while its high school program has grown into a force of its own.
When Susan Nutter took over the coaching reins in 2003, she inherited a group of 93 boys and girls and in less than a decade, through the help of parents and volunteers now oversees a combined group of 200 hopefuls that comprise their Neptunes squad.
“When I first started, if you wanted to be a high school swimmer you either swam for the Poland, Boardman, Canfield, Hubbard or Warren Harding High swim teams,” Nutter said. “The smaller schools really had no swimming outlet.
“Parents with children who had been swimming at a very early age wanted them to continue scholastically and through the help of those parents and athletic directors at their respective schools, additional high school programs were approved for competition.”
In 2004, when two squad members wanted to swim for their school but no program was offered, it was parents who made all of the necessary arrangements with the high school athletic director and the Ohio High School Athletic Association in order to act as coach on paper and on-deck at their respective sectionals events.
The Cardinal Mooney program was born in 2007 when Tommy Boniface showed an interest to swim competitively for his high school.
Since the Cardinals did not have a swim team, his father, Dr. Tom Boniface, served as his coach while he trained with the Neptunes’ program.
In six short years the Cardinals have qualified several swimmers for state competition, while other high school-aged Neptune swimmers have also followed suit.
The Y-Neptune coaching staff currently trains swimmers representing South Range, Western Reserve, Youngstown Christian and Austintown Fitch high schools.
“The most important thing the Neptunes teach you is to love the sport. They teach great technique from the moment you begin and it’s like we’re one big, happy family,” Youngstown Christian swimmer Mikayla Morrow stated.
At the outset, the Neptunes did not have a separate practice time for high school swimmers, which forced them to swim the late-night practice slot while using just two lanes in order to train together.
Those swimmers participated for the Neptunes at dual meets and were eventually invited to participate at high school dual meets against other area teams.
Once swimming in a meet representing their high school, those swimmers who trained with the Neptunes could no longer swim as a Neptune at YMCA sanctioned meets until their high school season was completed, usually by mid-February.
Many will return this year to compete with the Neptune Team at their Great Lakes Zone Championship, scheduled for March 15-17 at Bowling Green State University.
The competition will include YMCA programs from five surrounding states.
“I just started to swim competitively a little over two years ago and while practices weren’t hard, they were hard for me,” Cardinal Mooney swimmer Alex Christopher said. “I really didn’t know what to expect, but the improvement that I have made has been nothing short of amazing to me.”
After years of gradual change the program has progressed from two lanes for one hour, three days a week to where specific practice times for high school age swimmers has been allotted by the Downtown YMCA.
That includes two-hour practice sessions, five days a week and three morning practices with dry-land training three times weekly under the tutelage of trainer Larry Stankorb.
A television with TiVo capability in order to observe starts and turns as well as an underwater sound system for music listening has also been part of the program’s recent upgrade.
“This is my seventh year as a member of the Y-Neptunes and while the coaches work us hard, they have more than prepared us for our high school season,” Cardinal Mooney’s Taylor Tofil said. “We’ve grown as swimmers because of their instruction.”