Local swimming program produces next-level talent

By: Timothy Pontzer | Rochester Post | Published November 20, 2017

 Six athletes from the Oakland Live Y’ers swim team signed their letters of intent Nov. 15 at Oakland University. Pictured are, from top left, Grace McGinnis (Rochester Adams), Samantha Ekleberry (Auburn Hills Avondale), Caroline Szydlowski (Bloomfield Hills Sacred Heart); bottom left, Lucy Schenden (Adams), Chris Westgate (Adams) and Claire Schenden (Adams).

Six athletes from the Oakland Live Y’ers swim team signed their letters of intent Nov. 15 at Oakland University. Pictured are, from top left, Grace McGinnis (Rochester Adams), Samantha Ekleberry (Auburn Hills Avondale), Caroline Szydlowski (Bloomfield Hills Sacred Heart); bottom left, Lucy Schenden (Adams), Chris Westgate (Adams) and Claire Schenden (Adams).

Photo by Donna Agusti

ROCHESTER — Jeff Cooper is a man of many hats.

The coach of the Oakland Live Y’ers swimming program, Cooper added five more to his headwear collection during a Nov. 15 signing ceremony at Oakland University.

Six of Cooper’s graduates officially chose where to continue their careers, each offering the longtime coach a cap with their respective college’s logo — with a pair of twin sisters headed to Michigan State University giving him a single Spartans hat.

“I have a closet full of them; they’re great for golf,” Cooper said with a laugh. “I have a lot of shirts too, from all over. This is a great day. It’s most rewarding for the kids because they’ve spent close to their whole life to get to this point.”

Cooper has spent 23 years at the helm of OLY, watching hundreds of swimmers leave the program for the next level. A star swimmer who graduated from OU in 1988 before helping coach the women’s program to a Division II national championship, Cooper said he is proud to wear the gear with mascots other than his alma mater’s Golden Grizzlies.

“I’m very proud of all of these kids. You hope that maybe all of these laps pay off,” Cooper said. “We have six to 15 seniors graduate each year, and usually all but one or two are swimming in college every year, so you do the math — we have a lot of kids out there. I’ve spent nine to 12 years with each one of these kids, hours and hours of work. It’s a lot of sacrifices to choose to do this instead of going out or hanging with the family.”

Caroline Szydlowski spent a dozen years under Cooper’s tutelage. Set to graduate from Bloomfield Hills Sacred Heart in the spring, Szydlowski is headed south to the University of Kentucky for freestyle distance and pre-med.

“(Cooper) is a great coach; I’ve known him for forever,” Szydlowski remarked. “He knows you and coaches you to be your best. I’m 17, so I’ve spent most of my life in this program, so it’s tough to move on, but they’ve prepared me to do just that.”

Samantha Ekleberry spent nine years in the OLY program, honing her skills to earn a spot at the University of Toledo next year.

“OLY has prepared me a lot — we do a lot of hard sets here,” explained Ekleberry, who is a senior at Auburn Hills Avondale. “Our coaches know how a college program would be, so it’s set up like that.”

Ekleberry is the fourth in her family to utilize OLY as a steppingstone to college. An older brother and sister moved on to Wayne State University, and another brother swam at the University of Michigan. The current Yellowjacket said she is thrilled to go to Ohio and swim freestyle distance for the Rockets.

“Toledo was the best for me. The team was great, and the coaches were very nice,” Ekleberry said. “They were very encouraging, and they have a great nursing program.”

Grace McGinnis also spent nine years in OLY. Specializing in freestyle distance, McGinnis is following in her sister Claire’s footsteps by heading to the University of Miami next fall.

“I never thought I’d be able to swim in college when I joined the program,” McGinnis said. “The training that (Cooper) gives us definitely prepares you for the next level. When I went to Miami on Claire’s visit, I fell in love with the campus and feel of the school.”

Of those at the Nov. 15 ceremony, McGinnis is the only one who also swam for her respective high school. She represented Rochester Adams for two years, saying it was tough to juggle both commitments, but it’s paying off in the end.

“I saw how much (Claire) liked it and how much she grew as a swimmer,” McGinnis explained. “I thought it would allow me to be more of a part of my school. I was hesitant at first, but I’m really glad I did it. It was difficult to do both, but it definitely helped me succeed. (Adams coach) Tim Hickey helped me so much.”

The lone male in the group, Chris Westgate also attends Rochester Adams. He will represent Wayne State next year in freestyle distance.

“OLY gave me the training that was comparable to the university level, and that really appealed to me,” Westgate said. “Wayne State is downtown, and I’ve never lived in a city before. I thought it would be cool, but it’s still close to home. The coaches and swimmers there have already made me feel like part of the team.”

Claire and Lucy Schenden have spent their whole lives together and will continue that trend for at least the next four years. Twin sisters from Rochester Hills Stoney Creek, the pair spent five years with OLY, using it as a springboard to join Michigan State.

“We have similar interests, but we weren’t planning on going to the same college — it just happened to work out,” Claire Schenden said. “We practice over 20 hours a week here, and that’s the same thing they do in college. This gave us the training we needed to be prepared.”

Both will study business in East Lansing.

“We’re really excited; we like hanging out with each other,” Lucy Schenden said. “It’s amazing we both have this opportunity together. All of this prepared us to get in college and be the best we can be.”

Lucy Schenden will compete in freestyle distance for the Spartans, while her sister will specialize in the backstroke.