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This is how the Gulliver girls’ swim team built a competitive, winning culture

Gulliver Prep senior Emily Cordovi, 17, during varsity 1 practice at the Gulliver Aquatic Center at Gulliver Preparatory in Pinecrest, FL, on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018.
Gulliver Prep senior Emily Cordovi, 17, during varsity 1 practice at the Gulliver Aquatic Center at Gulliver Preparatory in Pinecrest, FL, on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018. Miami Herald

Often seen as a boring annoyance, sport dynasties are worth a look.

Things could go in so many directions at any given meet, and still the endgame remains consistent. It is so rare that coaches often struggle to credit something specific in their plan — and the role of luck? — because things can go in any direction at any given meet.

In swimming, someone could jump the start and get disqualified. The team start could be going through a rough patch. The weather might be rattling enough. Repeating a title is hard because replicating the winning circumstances is hard.

Now imagine doing it four years in a row.

Since 2014, the Gulliver Prep girls’ swimming team has been through two coaches and a complete team renovation — that year’s juniors graduated last spring. The team still well on its way to challenge for its fifth consecutive state championship in the 2A Class.

“We try to not put an emphasis on keeping the streak going,” said coach Chris George when asked about his team’s implacable way. At the helm since 2016, when Jeff Poppell decided to move on to coach the successful Florida Gators, George attributes the seamless transition to their initial emphasis in building a foundation with the youngest prospects.

He was not only the assistant coach during that process, but had been himself a pupil of Poppell since he was an 8-year-old swimmer. Now 33, it is his age that is often credited by his swimmers as his best trait.

“He’s younger, so he gets us more,” says senior standout Emily Cordovi. “With him, practices are less scary, and more fun.”

Fun as in tough love. A few minutes into the afternoon practice, he can be seen complaining into the lanes: “Do you even want to be here?”

A MARATHON AND A SPRINT

By Thursday at 3:30 p.m., it is already the sixth practice of the week at Gulliver’s pool in its Pinecrest campus. Over 50 boys and girls ages 13 to 17 swim under the burning afternoon sun. Splashing in the water and not feeling one’s own sweat must be nice, but it still leaves a mark. Such as when they remove their caps and a line still runs through their foreheads.

Cordovi laughs at the mention, and enumerates other perks of the outdoor swimmer life.

“We get the goggle tan, the one piece, the dead hair, and always smelling like chlorine, no matter how much we shower,” she says. “I can’t even smell it anymore, but other classmates can.”

Three-time state champion at the 100m fly, and twice at the 100m back, Emily Cordovi is also pursuing progress with consistency. The 17-year-old is gunning for team and individual repeats, and wants to lower her times before moving on to swim for Florida State University.

“Everyone says they want to go to the Olympics, but I just want to make the NCAA team with FSU and at least crack the top 10,” she says.

So far, Cordovi is the only girl in the team with a set college destination. By the looks of it, her teammates are at least committed to push each other to the limits.

“Practice is the best when we have these types of mock swim meets, racing with everybody,” says breaststroke specialist Olivia Hernandez. Pure racing is frequently cited by the senior swimmers as their favorite workout.

“Like the meets, when we have neck-and-neck races until the end, it is way more exciting,” she adds.

The appeal of racing is so big that George likes to pit girls and boys against each other. Against the odds, the former often come away with the bragging rights.

THE PROCESS

A coach of “many hats,” as he puts it, George sees his job as a mentor-teacher-psychologist combo. Despite being in charge of both boys and girls, and very aware of their differences, he tries to cater to the specific mentality of each team member, regardless of gender.

“The hardest part is knowing the individual and learning to connect with each one to get the best out of them,” he explains. It is about balancing between pushing an athlete and nurturing them.

With that approach, swimmers and coaches use the final month of the regular season, before going for district, regional and state championships on consecutive weekends, starting October 29.

“From a physical standpoint, we won’t be surprised because we see them every day,” he says. “But it is all about the mental side.”

So far, so good.

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