Training Teamwork Tradition

Punahou’s Swim Program is Built on Individual Strength and Team Support

Department: Athletics

By Samuel Vierra. Photos by Kristen Collat.

It is difficult to understand the mindset of a swimmer and the concept of a swim team. A Punahou swimmer is likely to train year-round, sometimes twice a day. Most of their practice time is spent alone, underwater, with only their aches and pains to keep them company. Swimming requires a unique combination of focus and discipline. During training, swimmers can be churning out 20,000 meters – almost 13 miles – a session.

“It takes a different kind of animal – a special mindset to do this,” says Head Coach Jeff Meister, who is in his 24th year at the helm of the Punahou swim program. Even with all the demands the sport places upon its athletes, the JV and varsity teams still attract more than 150 students for tryouts every year. “The level of competitiveness to make the team is increasing,” says Meister. Since the early 20th century, Punahou’s swim program has produced not only some of the best swimmers in Hawai‘i, but the United States as well. Mariechen Wehselau (1924) Jackson won gold and silver medals at the 1924 Olympics and Warren Kealoha (1925) won gold in 1920 and 1924.

Mary Zweng ’16 glides through the waters of the Elizabeth P. Waterhouse Pool during a swim meet.

Varsity swimmer Trent Dawson ’14 began swimming eight years ago because, as his parents put it, “If you live in Hawai‘i you should learn to swim.” At first he didn’t like competitive swimming, but as he got better, his passion for the sport grew and he began to appreciate its subtler qualities. “Swimming taught me that whatever you put into something is what you will get out of it,” he says – a valuable lesson that Dawson and his teammates can apply to other aspects of their lives.

Maria Parker ’14, also on the varsity team, sees a direct correlation between success in the classroom and success in the pool: “In both cases you have to be strict with yourself. You have the choice to do a mediocre job or to be the best.”

Team Concept

The focus and discipline required to be a successful swimmer are extremely demanding for these students. Meister says that the reality of swimming is not always fun. “I mean, you have your face buried in the pool, it’s six in the morning, it’s cold or it’s raining.”

A successful swim program requires systems of support and motivation built into its core philosophy. This is where the concept of a swim team makes sense. Without teammates, the individual isn’t always driven to do his or her very best. “The rest of the team is suffering with you,” says Parker. “In between swim sets we are telling each other ‘one more, just one more.’”

For Meister this support network is essential and he is always looking for ways to build these qualities within his team.

On a bulletin board by the pool are the “Leaves of Change.” The idea is that members of the team will anonymously write messages of encouragement, support or gratitude onto paper leaves, which are then placed upon a cutout of a hala tree. “When the swimmers catch a teammate doing something good, they put it up there,” says Meister, “which keeps things positive.”

Tradition of Excellence

Since the program’s founding in 1910, swimmers at Punahou have been motivating each other to be the best they can be. The boys and girls varsity teams have won a combined 131 ILH titles since the league’s founding in 1917, as well as 89 state titles. Punahou’s Swimming Hall of Fame features Olympians, international record holders, and Division I standouts.

Jasmine Mau ’14 is on a path to add her name to the impressive list of accomplished swim alumni – after setting a national independent school record in the 100-yard fly this February, she will take her talents to one of the country’s swimming powerhouses in the fall: University of California at Berkeley. “Swimming has had a great tradition for many years at Punahou. We get people who want to continue that tradition and they know it’s both a burden and a motivation,” says Meister.

To walk on the pool deck during a swim practice is to see a roster of former swimmers. Punahou alumni who swam in the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s keep the tradition and reputation of the program alive by coaching today’s teams. It’s a cycle that doesn’t appear to be running out of energy or passion anytime soon. Jed Johnson ’15 feels the magnitude of Punahou’s storied past whenever he steps onto the pool deck: “It’s a competitive atmosphere. This is a team with a lot of talented people. They make you want to see how far you can go.”

Dawson pauses for some time when asked about what the swim team means to him. “You not only represent Punahou swimming, but the entire institution. It’s our tradition. Our past. Our future.”

Samuel Vierra is a high-school English teacher who has coached water polo and baseball, and is married to Robyn Borofsky ’99 Vierra.


  • Submitted by Pat Ward

    4/11/2014 7:13:31 PM

    As a member of the championship '59 team this article brings back a lot of memories.

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