When Nate Heppner basically started the La Jolla Country Day swimming program from the ground up four years ago, he wasn’t quite sure what he was getting himself into. The school had offered swimming as a club sport for a number of years, and Heppner’s task was to oversee the transition to a full varsity and junior varsity squad for both the girls and boys teams.
Looking back now at the girls varsity team specifically, he said he couldn’t have done it without the efforts of three of his most reliable swimmers.
Hilary Sluis, Karisa Karlovich and Fran Halleman have been there from the beginning, starting with Heppner as freshmen, and as those swimmers have reached their senior seasons, they’ve witnessed a fledgling program develop into one of the school’s stronger sports.
“At one point, it was a sport that people came out for if they couldn’t do anything else, but now you have to be at practice every day and working hard all the time,” Heppner said. “Now it’s a lot more competitive. Those three girls have been able to meet rising expectations.”
Sluis swims the butterfly, Karlovich swims the sprint freestyle events, and Halleman swims the distance freestyle events. When the team first started, Heppner didn’t know quite where to put each swimmer, but in the years since then, they’ve each developed a specialty and become good at it.
The individual improvement they have each seen has contributed to the greater cause of the team’s success, even if at times that progress was slow and might not have been easily recognizable.
“My freshman year was my first year swimming since I was a lot younger, and I was kind of intimidated by the rest of the team, but Nate is just so dedicated and makes you want to go to practice, and I think that helps a lot,” Karlovich said. “It was more physically difficult than anything. I was seeing improvement in my times, and I was swimming faster. We weren’t necessarily winning, but personally I thought I was improving. There were definitely times where you wouldn’t want to go to practice the next day or go out the next year, but it’s never been so bad that I didn’t want to continue.”
Heppner said when the team first started, he had only about 13 girls come out, and he had a difficult time filling out an entire lineup. In the lean times, the Torreys were lucky to win a single event, much less beat another team in a dual meet.
But every year, his three cornerstones returned, and each season more and more new swimmers joined them. Now, he said, he has about 24 athletes on his roster, and he feels the team has a chance every season to be competitive.
“We’re a solid team,” he said. “We’re good enough that we can probably be a top eight or top 10 team at CIF.”
The Torreys competed in their final dual meet of the season this week, and were preparing to move in to the City Conference Finals and then the CIF championships after that. When the program started, they wouldn’t have had a chance of being noticed at these meets, but things have changed dramatically in four years.
“It definitely is a great feeling,” Karlovich said. “We’ve seen the program develop at our school. “Freshman year we didn’t have a very good turnout. It was a club before that, and it was our first year having an actual team. Each year after that, we’ve had more kids go out for the team, and we’re starting to have more good freshmen come out for the team. It’s great to get them in young so they can develop. It’s exciting that we’re making it to CIF now and doing things we didn’t think we could.”
Heppner attributed much of the change to the foundation that has been there from the beginning.
“They’ve been great,” Heppner said of Sluis, Karlovich and Halleman. “They’re not the stars of the team - we have some sophomores and freshmen who are probably our best swimmers - but they’re really competitive, and the rest of the girls look up to them as leaders.”
Even though they’ll be gone after graduation this spring, their impact on the program will be lasting.
“Our team now has so much more potential than when I was a freshman,” Karlovich said. “Our best swimmers are all the youngest ones, and that’s exciting, because who knows what they’ll be in four years. More and more people come out every year, and it’s starting to be a bigger thing at our school. I can see the team having a lot of success in the future, even more than we’re having now.”