U.S. Club Spotlight

What Makes Lake Erie Unique Is The Intensity Of Its Workouts


Russ Ewald

Much has been written about the decline of distance swimming in the United States. One theory is that society has gone soft with the modern conveniences, so that youngsters no longer desire to work hard. Another blames the NCAA scoring system that heavily weights the relays, which are sprint-oriented, forcing college coaches to load up on sprinters and offer very few scholarships to distance competitors.

But an exception to the trend away from the longer events exists in Cleveland, Ohio. The Lake Erie Silver Dolphins are making a name for themselves by emphasizing distance events. Jerry Holtrey, a former open-water swimmer, started teaching what he knows 33 years ago and never quit. His club's 275 swimmers, who range in age from 6 through 23, experience endurance work from the time they join the team.

Diana Munz and Erica Rose, Lake Erie's pair of 16-year-old stars, relate similar experiences in their reasons for taking up the distance events.

Erica Rose with coach Jerry Holtrey
Click image for larger photo. Photo © Marco Chiesa

"Our program consists mostly of distance work," says Munz, the silver medalist in the 800 at the World Championships. "I just started swimming distances and did well, so he (Holtrey) kept putting me in that lane. I don't think I chose."

World 5K open-water champion Erica Rose recalls, "In some ways, I didn't have a choice. Even when I was younger, the practices were geared toward the distances."

Both swimmers believe, though, they couldn't have been sprinters because of a lack of natural speed.

"The longer the distance, the better I do," says Rose.

The distance group averages 15,000 to 17,000 metres a day in the summer peak period of training. They do double workouts five days a week and one Saturday and sometimes do stroke drills or a special set on Sunday if the coach thinks it's necessary. But Holtrey doesn't think it's the distance swum that separates his swimmers from others and adds none of the intense work starts for any of his team members until they reach their teen years.

"I don't think we work longer than any teams," says Holtrey. The dryland work isn't much either. Lake Erie does little with free weights. Instead, Holtrey prefers natural exercises like crunches (as many as 500 a day) and pushups (250), some stepups and surgical tubing workouts.

And the facilities can't be the reason behind the team's success. In the summer, the senior group practices at a nice facility at Cleveland State University, which has been the host of men's NCAA Championships. However, the winter pool at Hawken, a prep school where Holtrey doubles as the high-school coach, is less than desirable. The 25-yard indoor pool has only five lanes and no gutter system nor seating.

"The newspaper here once did a survey rating the pools in the city and Hawken's was voted least liked," noted Rose.

What makes Lake Erie unique is the intensity of its workouts. "We may not train as long per day as some other clubs," says Rose, "but everything we're doing has a purpose and is hard. We don't have recovery sets. That's something most teams have. They will have an extremely hard workout. Then the next one won't be. That is probably the biggest difference between our team and others."

Erica Rose, USA
PLACE Cleveland, Ohio
HEIGHT 162 cm (5'4")
WEIGHT 56 kg (125 lb)
HOMETOWN Cleveland Heights, Ohio
CLUB Lake Erie Silver Dolphins
COACH Jerry Holtrey
OCCUPATION Hawken School 2000
Year 400 free 800 free 1500 free
1996 4:23.00 (--) 8:52.42 (82) 16:46.42 (13)
1997 4:19.14 (80) 8:42.34 (22) 16:25.98 (3)
1998 4:20.50 (16) 8:43.16 (25) 16:33.20 (3)
- 98 Worlds 1st 5K Open Water
Number in brackets indicates world ranking

After a warmup of from 800 to 1500 yards or metres, Holtrey gives the team three of five sets to do.

"We try to do just about the whole workout at a high level," he says. "My expectations are I want every set done hard. We try to do this throughout every workout until I see them reach the point of failing. When that happens, I have several options to get their body recovered. One is to do a lot of individual medley work. Another is to swim descending sets. Or we may just do stroke drills.

"Normally, they can recover in one workout so by the time we get ready for a second workout that day they are ready to go hard again. It's something they build up in their body so they can take this kind of intensity for long periods of time."

Paradoxically, before the present group led by Munz and Rose, the best swimmers to come out of Lake Erie and Hawken were a sprinter, Byron Davis, who almost became the first black to make a U.S. Olympic swimming team (4th at 1996 Olympic Trials in the 100 fly), and middle-distance freestyler Melanie Valerio, who made the Olympic team in 1996 in the 400 free relay. And while Hawken has been one of the leading swimming teams in the nation several times through the years, Lake Erie never has done nearly as well as at the last two spring nationals. The girls' team placed third in 1998 and fourth this year. In the combined scoring, the Silver Dolphins finished sixth this March in Long Island.

"We just have a group now that have got a hold of the type of workouts we've always wanted our swimmers to do," explains Holtrey. "They have taken it to a new level. They don't mind doing workouts day in and day out and putting in a lot of hard work. Even when Melanie and Bryon were here, they couldn't do the workouts we're doing now."

Munz says, "I think he's found people who want it real bad. When I look back to my younger days here, I see the older kids were just swimming for fun mainly. Jerry got them to swim well during the high-school season. Once that was over, they weren't thinking about nationals. They went to junior nationals, and it wasn't a big meet. The state (high school) meet was the biggest competition."

Distance finalist Sean Justice at 1998 Nationals
Click image for larger photo. Photo © Marco Chiesa

While Munz and Rose have been the stars for Lake Erie, Holtrey credits a couple of boys with being the trailblazers for the club's current success in the distances. Sean Justice, whose father swam under Holtrey, came to the club from Ashland, Ky., his senior year in high school and dropped from 4:51 to 4:31 in the 500 yard freestyle in one season. He went on to swim collegiately at Ohio State and Florida and last summer placed fourth in the 800 and sixth in the 1500 at the U.S. nationals. Nat Lewis came three summers ago from North Carolina and improved enough to last year place second in the 800 and fifth in the 400 and 1500. This year he placed fourth in the 1500 and seventh in the 400 at the NCAAs for Arizona.

Diana Munz, USA
PLACE Chagrin Falls, Ohio
HEIGHT 162 cm (5'4")
WEIGHT 52 kg (115 lbs)
HOMETOWN Chagrin Falls, Ohio
CLUB Lake Erie Silver Dolphins
COACH Jerry Holtrey
OCCUPATION Chagrin Falls High School 2000
Year 400 800 1500
1995 4:19.52 (63) 8:52.45 (71) 16:52.56 (22)
1996 4:17.38 (56) 8:41.62 (23) 16:34.64 ( 3)
1997 4:12.68 (17) 8:29.06 ( 4) 16:17.05 ( 2)
1998 4:11.18 ( 7) 8:29.97 ( 2) 16:16.00 ( 1)
- 98 Worlds 6th 400 free 4:11.70, 2nd 800 free 8:29.97
- 97 Pan Pacs 3rd 400 free 4:14.03, 3rd 800 free 8:29.06
Number in brackets indicates world ranking

"They helped our program a great deal," says Holtrey, "because swimmers could see if you had some ability and came to this club you get much better."

Then came Munz and Rose. Munz finished runner-up to Olympic gold medallist Brooke Bennett five times in the distances at the two nationals in 1997 and then in the 800 at the World Championships last year. Then last summer the Lake Erie star beat Bennett in both the 800 and 1500.

"The practices have gotten harder and harder here," says Munz. "And the competition from my teammates, Erica and Anna Strohl especially, pushes me. Anna is younger, and I don't want her to beat me. I don't want that just because of where I am. That's one factor that keeps me going fast in practice-just wanting to touch the wall first even in practice.

"It sounds silly, but I mean that's the way you are going to get there (to the top of the podium)." Besides Strohl, some of the up-and-coming youngsters are Shelley Klaus, Paul Kirk, and Jim Pullin.

"We have a large group that are highly motivated," says Holtrey. "They work extremely hard, don't miss practice, and have a positive attitude towards training. They're attracting more and more of the younger ones. Those youngsters see the elite group work out well and want to be a part of it."

Lake Erie's medal winners at 1999 Junior NAtionals in Buffalo: Julie Madden (7th), Maddy Rance (5th), Kristen Mikelonis (1st), and Lindsey Meier(3rd).
Click image for larger photo. Photo © Marco Chiesa

In a junior national championship earlier this year in Buffalo, Lake Erie placed 1-3-5-7 in the 1650.

"It's difficult to sell the swimmers on the idea that distance training can be a great satisfactory event for them," says Holtrey. "You have to work hard and long. But the satisfaction you get is unparalleled in the sport.

"Our kids love it because they know there is not as much competition in the distances as other events. They have a better chance to place high at nationals and in the rankings. They know they've done workouts just as hard as the college people if not harder. They can compete against them."