Kendall Bensen (center) swims backstroke with the rest of the Snohomish girls swimming team during a Wednesday practice session at Snohomish Aquatic Center. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Kendall Bensen (center) swims backstroke with the rest of the Snohomish girls swimming team during a Wednesday practice session at Snohomish Aquatic Center. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Snohomish girls swim program returning to prominence

The Panthers are starting to reap the benefits of their 4-year-old home.

A decade ago, Snohomish High School was a well-known power in swimming and diving with a rich history of success at the district and state levels.

The boys team was in the midst of a dynasty-like run of three straight Class 4A state titles from 2006-2008, and the girls team was a perennial postseason contender.

Meanwhile, Glacier Peak High School was about to open and start its own programs with hopes of duplicating the success of its rival school.

At the center of all this was Hal Moe Pool, the home to both schools’ swimming squads and a staple in the community. On Friday nights, passers-by regularly saw a line of the town’s youth wrapped around the old, grey building on the corner of Third Street and Pine Avenue, waiting for their chance to get in and enjoy an open swim.

But in 2007 that all changed when the pool was shut down. (It was demolished this past May.) The Panthers’ swim and dive squads were left without a home, and the programs suffered in result. Glacier Peak opened a year later, creating another program looking for pool time without a home option.

“There was a big swimming void in Snohomish,” said Rob Serviss, who’s been the head coach at Snohomish for 17 years. “If you grew up around Hal Moe, you know that swimming used to be a big deal in Snohomish. The teams were very good. It was one of the primary sports in the city, but then the pool closed and it kind of dwindled away.”

Seven years after Hal Moe shut down, its replacement — a 52,000-square-foot aquatic center with amenities that regulars at the former pool probably never dreamed of — opened. Four years after its opening, Snohomish’s swim programs are starting to reap the benefits of once again having a facility in their own back yard.

The Panthers’ girls swimming and diving team edged Shorecrest 470-466 in this past Saturday’s 3A District 1 championship meet, held at the Snohomish Aquatics Center. At the center of the team’s success was the first group of girls that received the opportunity to grow up at the new pool.

“They’re like a microcosm of what this whole place has been about,” Serviss said. “We believed that when we opened (the aquatic center) it was going to take some time to get the swim teams back to where they used to be. They’re just the first of hopefully many more classes that have an impact on what we’re able to do. It’s been great watching them grow up here.”

‘It was miserable’

The biggest obstacle that faced Snohomish’s program after the shutdown of the Hal Moe Pool was finding a place to practice.

Serviss said the team first tried Woodinville, a 25- to 30-minute drive from the high school. The problem wasn’t getting there — it was getting back.

Traffic heading north on Highway 9 during rush hour turned the half-hour travel into an hour-plus affair that was inconvenient for athletes, parents and coaches. Team members wouldn’t make it home until 7 p.m. or later.

“It was miserable,” Serviss said.

In addition to the difficult travel schedule, the swimming and diving portions of the teams didn’t get the chance to practice at the same venue and crossed paths only at school and at meets. The divers practiced at Mariner and Kamiak high schools while the swimmers were in Woodinville or Everett.

“It was really hard,” Serviss said. “The swimmers had to go one place. The divers had to go to another. They were never together. There was no opportunity for that.”

The difficult schedule deterred students who otherwise might have have given swimming a try, and even kept away year-round swimmers.

“When it’s, ‘Oh, my parents have to leave work early to pick me up and take me someplace 45 minutes away and then I’m not home until, like, 7 or 8 p.m.,’ people don’t just try a sport for that,” Serviss said. “A lot of the success we have at the district and state meet is when those freshmen come out and develop an affinity for the pool, and then they turn into point-scorers two or three years later when they’re juniors and seniors. We didn’t get those people for a long time because nobody was just going to give it a whirl when that much effort had to go in.”

A chance to rebuild

The seven-year void created by the closing at Hal Moe Pool was certainly a hindrance to the Snohomish swimming scene, but it wasn’t a death sentence.

The school district was quick to get a plan in place to build a new home, and Snohomish and Glacier Peak would have to patiently wait while their new home was in construction.

“We endured. We toughed it out, and then the bond got passed for this place,” Serviss said. “We knew that there was hope in sight. It was just a matter of surviving until we were able to get this place open and kind of get our feet back underneath us and get the lesson program and the younger kids excited and involved in swimming again. Now we’re starting to see that start to come to fruition.”

The combined numbers of the Snohomish and Glacier Peak teams had dwindled to around 40, but quickly shot back up 60 the year the aquatics center opened. Serviss, who coached Glacier Peak prior to this season, said the schools had more than 100 swimmers combined the past two years.

Snohomish junior Audrey Marrs, who claimed district titles in the 50- and 100-yard freestyles this past Saturday, said that she probably wouldn’t be swimming today if the new pool hadn’t opened.

“I actually wasn’t swimming at all until the pool opened,” Marrs said. “Swimming is the thing that kind of takes up most my time now, and that wouldn’t have happened if the aquatic center hadn’t opened.”

Growing up at the pool

The Panthers’ girls team has seen an influx in talent this season thanks to a freshman class that calls the aquatic center a second home.

Snohomish came into the season with Marrs, Mieko Schwartzmiller, Natalie Farlow and Kayli Kersavage — the 2017 Class 3A state diving champion — returning from a team that was on the cusp of getting back to being a district title contender but wasn’t quite there yet.

The Panthers added the freshman foursome of Kendall Bensen, Rylee Johnston, Macky Blackwell and Anna Kowalchyk, all of whom will compete in Saturday’s 3A state meet in individual or relay events.

The four have spent countless hours in the pool together since elementary school — starting with their time spent on the Stingray swim club — and are a part of the vision that was seen before the pool opened.

With the countless hours spent together, the girls have grown together.

“Swimming has just helped me create true friendships and true bonds,” Johnston said. “We all know what we’re all going through and we can all relate to each other.”

Bensen moved to Snohomish from New York when her mother, Chris Bensen, took a job as the aquatic center supervisor.

“(The move) was definitely worth it because I love this pool so much,” Bensen said. “Some of my closest friends I have I made at the pool.”

The aquatic center also has allowed the athletes to develop a relationship with Serviss, the center’s aquatics manager.

“I always grew up seeing Rob around the pool and saying ‘hi’ to him here and there,” Johnston said. “I’d always see him in his office. … It’s pretty cool he’s our high school coach now because it’s made it so easy to communicate.”

The girls also realize that they are lucky to have a state-of-the-art facility at their disposal.

“I’m so blessed I get to swim here, because we used to swim in a pool that was very small,” Blackwell said. “The blocks for diving were in a different pool from where you practiced. It was really a change. I just remember walking in here and feeling blessed that I get to swim five minutes away from my house and not 30 minutes away.”

“Growing up I swam in a pool where it was really stuffy and really small. It was a pool (that) you could stand up in and your waist was out of the water, and then the ground was all yucky and stuff,” Bensen said. “We’re really lucky to swim in a pool like this.”

District champs

Saturday’s district meet was a milestone event for Snohomish. It marked the squad’s return as a top team in the area, and the Panthers did it in dramatic fashion.

Snohomish’s 400 freestyle relay team, consisting of Kowalchyk, Johnston, Schwartzmiller and Marrs, delivered a meet-record time of 3 minutes, 41.55 seconds to beat Shorecrest’s second-place relay team and top the Scots on the meet’s leaderboard.

“I’ve been coaching for 17 years and it was probably the most exciting meet I’ve been a part of,” Serviss said. “That’s saying something because my boys teams won three state championships. The whole meet was super intense, and I’m just so proud of what they did in that meet.”

It was an exciting moment for the Panthers, and the first step in the school’s climb back to swimming prominence.

“Obviously it was a little different because Glacier Peak hadn’t opened yet, but there was a time when Snohomish was the dominant force in this area in swimming and diving,” Serviss said. “Our goal is to return to that. There is a lot of other great programs in our area, but that’s been the goal since we broke ground here. … I think we’re trending in the right direction.”

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