Swim team members from Catlin Gabel's most recent state championship pose with the coach and the blue trophy
Swim team members from Catlin Gabel's most recent state championship pose with the coach and the blue trophy

[Editor’s note: The idea behind “Alphabet Stories” is to write one noteworthy athletics-related story about each OSAA-member school. We started with Adrian HS on Sept.18. Today’s story, more than three months later (and on Christmas Day!), is about Catlin Gabel School. The goal will be to write two per week. While we will be relying upon athletic directors to furnish story ideas, anyone may offer suggestions by emailing [email protected]]

Academically rigorous Catlin Gabel School of Portland instituted a swimming program six years ago.

It turned out to be a stroke of genius.

The Eagles started by hiring a professional swim coach, Spencer Crum. Crum had worked as a swim coach at Multnomah Athletic Club from 2008 to 2013 and also coached high school teams at Cleveland HS and Riverdale HS before joining Catlin Gabel for its inaugural season.

In its first year of competition back in 2015, the boys team at CG, with just four swimmers, captured the 4A/3A/2A/1A state title. The team was anchored by Tristan Furnary, who went on to swim at Yale University. Furnary won state titles with Sunset HS as a freshman and sophomore before swimming for the Eagles his junior year. He won the 100 freestyle and 200 IM and also swam on two championship relay teams.

The boys took second at state one year later. Crum said that a controversial disqualification at Districts and “the desire to repeat” created a lot of anxiety for some swimmers.

“We ultimately missed our opportunity to repeat,” he explained.

More recently, the girls swim team at Catlin Gabel has taken center stage. The Eagles, with standout freshmen Eva Carlson and Lizzy Cook, placed third in 2018. They improved one position each year since and captured the state title last February, with Carlson and Cook each winning multiple individual state titles in record breaking times.

“My favorite part was the 400-freestyle relay at the end of the meet when we secured our win,” said Cook. “There were kids from my school cheering us on which really motivated me.

How does a swim team get to be so good so fast, especially without a pool on campus?

“To me, it's about culture and community,” said Crum. “It’s about developing a family, a crew that supports one another, from the top swimmer to those just learning how to swim for the first time in the competitive space and at their school.”

Some Catlin Gabel swim team members have been training on competitive club teams most of their young lives. They are winning races and earning college scholarships, like Carlson (UCLA) and Cook (Cal-Berkeley). Others are relatively new and out for a social experience.

“For athletes who train upwards of 20-plus hours per week already, high school swimming is not necessarily the most critical part of their competitive experience,” Crum explained. “I want high school swimming to be a playground experience for these athletes; an opportunity to work on pieces of their craft that they might not have the courage to at a high level competition because the stakes matter. If they are willing to share their talents, they are lifting the whole of the team with their presence. Those who show up with little to no experience are important, too, because their growth and development inspire and build the base of the team at the district and potentially the state level of competition. They end up being swimmers who score those points and as a 3A school competing against 4A, we need every point we can get at the district and potentially the state level.”

“I loved being coached by Spencer,” Cook noted. “He works really well with all levels of swimmers and was so much fun.”

Crum said that Catlin Gabel has been fortunate to find a suitable training environment for his program.

“Swimming is tough because there are far more teams than pools,” he explained. “Being a smaller and newer team, we were fortunate to be able to share the 50-meter pool at the Multnomah Athletic Club with Lincoln High School. They have a longstanding relationship with the MAC and they have shown great kindness in allowing us to split the pool space with them.”

Had the swimming championships been conducted in February, as usual, Catlin Gabel would have been overwhelming favorites to repeat as girls’ champions. But the move to late spring/summer due to COVID means that Carlson and Cook may not swim as they prepare for both the Olympic trials in June and collegiate swimming in the fall.   

“Both have contributed beyond any expectation,” said Crum. “Their presence has allowed us to contend for a state championship since their freshman year. They've grown, learned and hopefully gained as much from the experience as they've provided for the Catlin Gabel team and community at large. I don't know if they are going to swim this year as swimming gets pushed into the summer. If it is an experience they value and will grow from, yes, they should be there. If they've accomplished the work they set out to and feel complete, then it may not be in the cards.”

Crum said that Catlin Gabel will continue to have a successful swimming program even after Carlson and Cook, even if that success doesn’t include state championships.

“At the 4A-1A level, if you have 2-4 solid club athletes you can be in contention,” Crum said. “We don't have the advantage of the 4A programs with strong club programs in their towns. The blessing of top flight athletes is a gift, and I am grateful for their contributions to the experience of their teammates. They have never been able to do it all alone though, and neither will those to come. The most important piece is to make it fun and develop the character of these student athletes. I've done my greatest work developing swimmers who've never touched water before. I've coached swimming for 18 years and that is what it has always been about: teaching with enthusiasm the integral skills of life and speaking about value and worth outside of their performances to those I'm blessed to coach.”