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SWIMMING: Sampaio making waves with Dolphins (07/28)

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By Ryan O'Gara

In the mind of Mavi Sampaio, competitive swimming is all about commitment.

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With so many athletes leaning more and more toward specialization, commitment has become even more important, especially in a sport like swimming.

When Sampaio took over the E’town Dolphins in 2009, the commitment simply wasn’t there.

“When I came here, the program was a whole bunch of kids and parents who didn’t know what competitive swimming is all about,” Sampaio said Saturday afternoon as he coached the Dolphins in the Swimville USA/Caretenders Kentucky Swimming Long Course State Championship at E-town Swim & Fitness Center. “Gradually, we’ve taught them and introduced things that are necessary for them to improve and swim faster. We’re still working on that. There is still a lot to learn for the parents and the kids to take the next step.

“Athletes need to do some things that I would say normal people do not,” he added. “The way they eat, the way they sleep, the way they live their lives. It is a big step forward and we’re learning. We’re getting there.”

Now in his fifth season leading the program, Sampaio has established a culture that doesn’t accept anything short of hard work and 100 percent commitment.

And his swimmers know it.

“If you don’t care, he won’t care about you,” said T.J. Dugan, who is competing in the boys’ 13-14 division. “But if you do care, he’ll help you as much as he can.”

Going into Saturday night’s finals, the Dolphins were fifth out of 21 teams. And that’s a level Sampaio has expected his team to compete at, regardless of its size.

He’s placed an emphasis on the basics to create a foundation and tried to introduce minor details along the way.

For someone such as Hannah Godfrey, who has been with the program for 10 years like, it isn’t hard to notice the differences of before and after Sampaio arrived.

“It’s changed a lot,” Godfrey said. “We’ve gotten new swimmers and the old swimmers have gotten better. Attitudes towards swimming have changed with him.”

One misconception about the Dolphins is the team has gotten so much bigger. Teams which aren’t familiar with the Dolphins see them and think they have just added a bunch of people. In reality, the Dolphins are just sending more people to big meets.

When Sampaio started, he estimated about 20 to 30 percent of the team was qualifying for State. Now, that number is up around 70 to 80 percent. So though the quantity of swimmers isn’t necessarily growing, the quality is.

The athletes appreciate Sampaio being honest with them. He isn’t afraid to tell his swimmers when his standard isn’t being met.

“He’s a serious coach and isn’t going to tell you that you did a good job every time. And that’s not what you should hear,” Godfrey said. “He helps fine-tune technique and stuff like that, tells you what you need to work on. If you did do a good swim, he’ll tell you good job, which is always a plus.”

And if you didn’t?

“Let’s see what we can do to make it better next time,” Godfrey said.

In a sport so mentally demanding, practice can be overwhelming. It isn’t uncommon for swimmers to dread going to practice, but Godfrey said Sampaio switches things up a lot so the team doesn’t get into a stale routine.

Above all, it’s an environment for his swimmers to grow, which has shown up in the results.

For example, Dugan has shown considerable improvement since Sampaio arrived after being the coach at the University of North Dakota for eight years.

“I can definitely say I’m a better swimmer because of him,” Dugan said. “I started in December of ’04. He came around ’09. I was really low for my age group. I wasn’t even top 30 in the state. But after a year, I was top 16, going to the finals, so he really made a major impact.”

Sampaio recognizes the limitations his team faces going up against clubs from bigger cities like Louisville and Lexington, but the Dolphins have challenged many despite being half their size.

As he pushes forward, Sampaio hopes he teaches kids something they can use later in life, while also making some life-long friends. And of course, keep transforming the Dolphins into a high-level program.

“I’m never 100 percent satisfied. As a coach, you always want more and more,” Sampaio said. “I’d like to see them swimming a little faster. But we’re in good shape.”

Ryan O’Gara can be reached at (270) 505-1754 or rogara@thenewsenterprise.com.