By Max Goodwin
There is an invisible force that has propelled Rockhurst High School’s swim and dive team to a record 13 Missouri state championships, all of which were won under the tenure of head coach Paul Winkeler.
“I always tell kids it starts with love,” Winkeler said. “These kids, they’ve got to love their teammates, and with love comes respect.”
“I’ve seen kids go faster in the water than they ever thought they could go. It’s because they weren’t doing it for themselves, they were doing it for the team.”
Rockhurst added its most recent state championship this past Saturday, November 13. It was as much of a team win as possible.
Rockhurst did not win a single event at the meet but won the state championship by still placing high enough in each event to earn the most team points throughout the meet.
This was a special championship for the Rockhurst swim and dive program, as they all are. But this one especially was. The Aquahawks had not won back-to-back state championships since a streak of 11 straight ended in 2014 when Winkeler stepped down as coach and moved into the Rockhurst administrative staff in which he wasn’t able to coach.
Three years later, Rockhurst was again in need of a swim and dive coach and Winkeler answered the call. He says he’s thankful to be back in the classroom teaching chemistry and working as chair of the science department.
With so much earlier success there was some question of whether those achievements could be recreated.
“We had a really good run. We had a run of 11 straight state championships. You kind of wonder coming back, can we do this again?” Winkeler said. “This one was really special just to show that we can do this again. We can do what we did before. It’s the same process in the same formula and it still works.”
The program is designed around the team concept in a sport that most people think of as an individual sport. It takes a lot of individuals placing at the state championship meet to win the state title. This year Rockhurst had 13 swimmers and divers place at state. That’s about an average number for Rockhurst, around the amount required to win.
The team trains together and relies on each other during practice. The bonds they build in practice are what push them to keep swimming hard even when fatigue sets in, knowing that each member of the team has to do their part to win a state championship.
“They push us very hard throughout the season,” senior captain Joey DeVreugd said.
Coach Winkeler never lets the team forget that the state championship meet is a two-day event.
“Wink’s motto is day 2. He wants us to be ready for that second day of state championships to be able to swim when we’re tired and push through,” DeVreugd said.
As the swim and dive team boarded the bus to travel to this year’s state championship, the entire school gathered outside to cheer them on. It was another reminder that they swim for someone outside themselves, another team motto.
It’s hard to reach your potential when you’re swimming for yourself, going into a race with a self-centered mindset, DeVreugd said. Instead they swim for each other. It’s never completely on one individual’s shoulders to win a state championship, but instead each individual knows they have a part to contribute, and if one of them has a bad swim the others can pick them up.
Photos of Rockhurst’s first state championship are common around the school. They stand out because of the pink shirts worn by the team. It just happened to be the color used for state championship shirts that first year, but the photos have stood out over time, the pink shirts coming to symbolize that first one of many state championships.
As Rockhurst successfully defended its state championship for the first time this year since its previous 11 year reign on top of Missouri high school swimming, the team, coaching staff, and supporters gathered for another photo at state, many of them wearing pink shirts to recall that first state championship 16 years ago.
For Joey DeVreugd, he knows these are memories he will look back on for a long time to come, and he knows exactly what will come to mind when he does.
“The Rockhurst swim team has been a huge part of my life the last few years. I’ll think of my teammates when I look back on this time,” DeVreugd said.