Coach proud to oversee rise of Country Day swimming teams

When Nate Heppner took over the boys and girls swimming programs at La Jolla Country Day three years ago, he inherited programs without much tradition or participation. The two teams totaled just 13 swimmers in 2003, Heppner’s first season and the Torreys’ second season in the pool.

But as the 2005 season closes, the Torreys are significantly more established. Heppner’s teams had 38 participants this year (15 boys and 23 girls), and his girls team finished with a 5-3 dual meet record, the first winning regular season mark for either of his squads.

Add to that the fact that the girls team sent nine swimmers to the City Conference Championships and advanced two of those plus two relay teams to the CIF-San Diego Section Division II Championships, and it turned out to be a historic season for Country Day.

“We’re really growing by leaps and bounds,” Heppner said. “The quality of the swimmers has improved as well. We’re getting better and better swimmers in every year.”

As for the success of his girls team, he won’t say he saw it coming, but admitted it was something that has been in the works since the beginning three years ago. In having its best season to date, the girls team had swimmers set school records this season in nine of 11 events.

“We have a lot of girls who have been with our program for a couple of years who have really come into their own,” Heppner said. “They really started to hit their stride this year.”

The big payoff for the Torreys came at the end of the season, when they had totaled enough qualifying marks to send nine swimmers to the conference championships.

Freshman Caroline Acheatel advanced in the 200-yard individual medley, and freshman Chelsea Burns went to the conference championships in the 50 freestyle and the 100 butterfly.

Seniors Anjali Chowfla and Megan Flicker also went, with Chowfla swimming the 100 breaststroke and Flicker participating in the 200 free and 500 free.

Freshman Melanie Kaplan had qualifying times in the 200 individual medley and the 500 free, and junior Karisa Karlovich went in the 50 free and the 100 free.

Junior Hilary Sluis swam the 100 free and the 100 fly. Alison Tebo went in the 50 free and the 100 free, and Emily Bromley advanced to the conference championships to swim the 100 free and the 100 backstroke.

Of those athletes, Burns and Kaplan were the only individuals to swim fast enough to advance to the CIF-SDS Division II Championships on May 21. The Torreys also sent two relay teams: the 200 freestyle relay was made up of Tebo, Sluis, Karlovich and Burns, while the 400 free relay team consisted of Tebo, Kaplan, Karlovich and Burns.

Heppner described Burns and Kaplan as two great swimmers and leaders.

Kaplan’s best showing at the section championships was her 11 th-place finish in the 500 freestyle, and Burns opened some eyes by finishing fourth in the 50 freestyle.

“Chelsea was actually a little disappointed at CIF,” Heppner said, laughing. “She likes to win.”

In fact, Burns hadn’t entered a 50 freestyle this year in which she finished anywhere but first. She went undefeated through the dual meet season, and then had the fastest time at the City Conference Championships, hitting a season-best mark of 25.06.

She was slightly slower (25.23) at the section championships, but performed admirably for a freshman swimmer going against the area’s best in the season’s final meet.

Heppner said Burns’ athletic ability makes her stand out in the pool.

“Most girls on our team play water polo in the winter or swim with clubs, so they’re ready to go once the spring season starts,” Heppner said. “She played volleyball in the fall and basketball in the winter, and just showed up to the swim team. She’s a natural swimmer. She’s fast and loves to compete. She just loves to hit the water and see who’s fastest.”

In fact, Burns is such a natural that she won the 50 freestyle in the team’s first dual meet, the day after attending her first practice of the season. She had been with the girls basketball team through its long playoff run, and then made the transition to success in the pool within days.

“I wish every kid on our team had the same competitive nature she does,” Heppner said.

Heppner said Burns is very laid back, sometimes even goofy, during practice sessions. But she changes quickly once it comes time to compete.

“Once she gets up on those blocks, she’s all business,” Heppner said. “She likes to go for it. Her ability was not a surprise to us, but we were surprised by how quickly she dominated. It’s a testament to how much she loves to compete.”