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Moving through the ranks

Joelle MilholmGlenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Post Independent/Kelley Cox
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In a crowded and loud atmosphere at the Glenwood Springs Community Center pool, Sopris Barracudas head swim coach Kirsten Gray still manages to get her swimmers’ attention.”Ashley!” she shouts as 12-year-old Ashley Roper stepped up onto the block on Friday night in day one of the Barracuda Invitational swim meet.Roper quickly looked over and the two locked eyes as Gray, who spent 12 years as assistant to former coach Barracuda Howard Jay, gave her some last-minute reminders.As Roper hit the water, starting the first lap of her 800-yard freestyle swim, Gray, who swam for Sopris swim team for 10 years growing up, continued to give her instruction. She shouted directions and motioned movements when Roper managed glances while taking breaths.While Roper went up and down the lanes 16 times, her goggles fell off, her swim cap came off, but Roper just kept on going. “She didn’t want to stop and fix her goggles because she knew it would slow her down. Her cap came off and she just let it go. Everything that could have gone wrong did, and she just kept going. She swam that in 1312 minutes,” Gray said, beaming with pride.After catching her breath, Roper was happy with her finish.”That was my first time doing the 800,” Roper said.Immediately after Roper was done, Gray made sure all the next swimmers had counters and again gave last minute instructions to another Barracuda – Alex Moore.While continuing to clock Moore’s laps, Gray met with Roper to discuss her splits (individual lap times), accomplishments and future goals.

When Moore is finished swimming his 800, she’ll discuss how well he did to cut 11 seconds off his time and what he can do next time to go even faster.That’s important to Gray, spending time with each swimmer.”She is really good. She gives us one-on-ones so it is like having a personal coach,” Roper said of Gray. “Then we do a lot of stuff where the team bonds together. It’s really fun.”When the Barracudas improve their times, Gray is almost more excited then they are.”This is what pumps you up,” Gray said. “You get to the meets and you see the kids shine and you’re like, ‘Yeah!'”

Gray took over the program this past winter when Jay ended his 20-year coaching career. Before that, Gray lived in Barcelona, Spain, teaching physical education and sixth-grade science and math. She was in Spain for four years before returning to Glenwood this winter. Gray is fluent in Spanish after her stay abroad, and that comes in handy sometimes.”It great because I have two families I can speak in Spanish with,” she said.Gray, who attained her undergraduate degree at the University of Northern Colorado, is currently working toward getting her masters through Montana State University. In fact, Gray was supposed to be in Bozeman this summer to take classes. But her love for swimming and the Barracudas changed her plans.”This group is amazing. That’s partly why I decided to stay this summer,” Gray said. “… The kids are just so great. They really work hard. They want to learn. They want to be here. They are not afraid to work hard.”Despite the fact that Gray was gone for four years, many of the faces on the Barracudas are the same. Even some of the swimmers who have aged out of the program – like former Glenwood Springs swim team stars Emily McDonald, Jessica Betts and Cori Barnes – have all come back to assist Gray this summer.”All three of them were former swimmers of mine, they joined when they were 6, 7 or 8,” Gray said of the trio. “So I had them through the ranks. Some of the kids, I had them when they were little. Now they are, like, 13. And a lot of new kids. It’s fun.”As far as practices go, Gray is at the pool 412 hours each day. For most of the summer, the team meets in the mornings at the Community Center to practice for 212 hours. Then last week, Gray started two-a-days, holding an afternoon session to work on fundamentals after the Barracudas’ workout session in the morning.It’s enough training to make Gray’s voice hoarse one day into the three-day Barracudas Invitational.Testing new watersAt each meet, Gray encourages her swimmers to do a “challenge swim” by taking on a stroke or event that scares them or just to do one they never have before.That’s what Roper did on Friday night. It’s a technique that makes the swimmers more well-rounded at their craft and more confident. While Gray has a great connection with the swimmers, her teaching career will be taking her away from the team again after the summer season.She won’t be returning to Barcelona; instead, she’s headed to Shanghai, China, to teach P.E. for two years starting at the end of the Barracudas’ season.



Until then, she’ll keep on coaching the 70-plus Sopris swimmers, relentlessly looking for faster times for her kids. Gray will also hope to bring the team together by taking them on a team rafting trip and is trying to organize some team hikes.The Barracudas will conclude their lone home meet of the summer today in the third day of the Barracuda Invitational. The morning session begins at 8 a.m. and will be followed by an afternoon session slated to start at 1 p.m.Sopris has five more regular-season meets on its schedule before the Western Slope Championships, state and seasonals, which run back-to-back-to-back weeks starting July 20-22.


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