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Out of school and into the pool

SMAC stresses team unity and camaraderie. SMAC photo SMAC stresses team unity and camaraderie. SMAC photo

Since 2001 the Smoky Mountain Aquatic Club has been geared toward having a nationally recognized aquatics program that develops and trains swimmers of all ages and abilities.

Based on the results, things appear to be going swimmingly. 

The team has had two swimmers go on to the Olympic trials, but SMAC isn’t strictly all about competition. The masters program is designed for swimmers in their 60s and 70s, but SMAC even sees participants in their 80s. 

Conversely, the stroke school, which teaches basic technique as well as water safety, is for new swimmers as young as 5. 

All of them splash around under the watchful eye of SMAC Head Coach Charlie McCanless. 

“The team has always emphasized individual progress, team unity and family participation, so we also have a lot of fun in the process,” said McCanless, 31, who started swimming at the age of five. “It’s a judgment-free zone and there’s space for athletes of all abilities.”

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He’s been involved with the sport his entire life, swimming all through high school and then in college at Eastern Carolina University where he was team captain and a varsity record holder in the 200-meter medley relay.

He then began coaching around the Carolinas until he moved to Boston to attend Berklee Colege of Music. He paid his way through school there by coaching at Charles River Aquatics and arrived at SMAC in 2014. 

“We teach a life-saving skill and lifelong sport out at SMAC and have a ton of fun in the process. We‘ve had a lot of success,” McCanless said. “We really do a good job of keeping track of everybody’s individual progress. That’s one of the unique things about swimming is that you can really quantify it.”

Swimmers set goals for themselves in terms of performance times, and strive to meet them. 

“And when they finally do it’s amazing,” he said. “It’s just super rewarding. We’ve dropped over 19,000 seconds collectively as a team since I’ve been here, which is really neat.”

A number of those swimmers have gone on to swim competitively at NCAA Division-I schools, many on scholarship. 

Between McCanless and fellow SMAC Coach Scott Simmons, the two have over 40 years of combined coaching experience. 

“We pride ourselves on being really good with the enthusiasm that we bring to practice every day,” said McCanless. “It’s also a great opportunity for swimmers to make friends, grow and get better together as a team. We think that swimming is the most fun sport around.”

Competition and camaraderie aside, basic swimming skills are important. According to a 2018 fact sheet released by the World Health Organization, the third leading cause of unintentional injury-related death is drowning, resulting in 7 percent of all injury-related deaths. 

The main deterrent for drowning is learning to swim, McCanless said, and teaching children how to swim means many drownings can be prevented; water safety, for many Haywood County kids, is a mentality that started at SMAC.

“We’re lucky at the [Waynesville] Recreation Center, there are lifeguards on duty all the time. Also, to be a coach you have to be lifeguard certified, CPR certified, first aid certified, AED, all that stuff,” he said. “In the stroke school, we have an instructor in the pool with the kids. Safety is number one priority for us as a team. We recognize that swimming can be a dangerous thing.”

Although it can be dangerous, it’s also a lot of fun, as any swimmer knows, and it’s even more fun in the summer.

“There’s a year-round program, a travel group and a local group, and then we have a summer team,” McCanless said. “The summer team starts around the beginning of May, but goes through the entire summer.” 

That team is called Summer SMAC, composed of swimmers age 6 to 17. According to SMAC’s website, the team “provides an opportunity for new swimmers to experience swim practice, low pressure meets and all the team spirit and fun that comes with being on a team!”

Swimmers of all abilities will first learn to feel safe and comfortable in the water, learn the four basic swim strokes — butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle — while concentrating on technique, building strength and gaining endurance. 

Practices are held Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays beginning at 6:15 p.m. and on Saturdays beginning at 8:30 a.m., all at the Waynesville Recreation Center at 550 Vance Street. 

“On the summer team we have space for about 50 to 75 kids,” McCanless said. Registration has begun and is ongoing, but as of press time SMAC’s website says there are about 50 spaces left. “Last year we filled up pretty good. The year before, we had a big crew as well, just a ton of kids.”

Because SMAC is separate from the Waynesville Recreation Center, swimmers must be members of the rec center to participate in Summer SMAC. Families can prepay a discounted $275 rate for the entire summer.

McCanless says Summer SMAC is flexible and laidback in regard to attendance. 

“We usually take people as the season goes on, and we also understand that people go on vacations over the summer and so they’ll miss practice and we totally recognize that. It’s not a big deal,” he said. “I would say, though, the more practice our swimmers can get, the more opportunities they will have to improve.”

And as they do, so does SMAC. 

“The team is growing, and it’s going to be a lot of fun to see where it goes from here,” he said. “We really pride ourselves on making sure that we have a positive on-deck learning environment, and we look forward to keeping swimming growing in Western North Carolina and in the region.”


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