WALLA WALLA - It's been a year of firsts for the Wa-Hi boys swim team.
It starts with first-year head coach Katharine Curles.
Curles is a 2007 Whitman graduate who swam the backstroke and freestyle for the Missionary swim team. She is not new to the Wa-Hi program, as she served as a girls assistant under former Blue Devil coach Brad Daly.
But when Daly retired after nine years coaching Wa-Hi, Curles presented the 2011-12 team its first first.
"One of my dreams has been to coach Wa-Hi," the Gig Harbor native said. "It's just a great program and he (Daly) has done some great things."
Curles comfort zone has been coaching girls, but at Wa-Hi there is one head coach. Hence, Curles has taken on a first in her young coaching career.
"I was very unsure about coaching boys," Curles said. "I kept telling Don (Wa-Hi athletic director Don Wilkins) that I was only coaching girls. Then I was coaching boys and girls.
"It (coaching boys) has actually been incredible," Curles continued. "The two (girls' and boys') teams are incredibly different, but I wouldn't trade it (coaching boys) for the world."
The firsts have continued as 34 - a new high - Blue Devil boys are out for swimming, and Wa-Hi is off to its best start with a 6-0 record, including first-ever wins over Moses Lake and Wenatchee. Wa-Hi goes after a first-ever Columbia Basin Big Nine swimming title when Richland and Hanford visit in the last double-dual of the regular season at 11 a.m. Saturday at Whitman's Harvey Pool.
In this year of firsts, Wa-Hi has relied on a core group of seniors to lead the way.
One of those seniors finished in the top 20 in both the 50-and 100-yard freestyles at the 2011 state meet. Four-year varsity swimmer Austin Garrett has been called on by Curles to help lead the Blue Devils.
"I knew Austin from working with the (Walla Walla) summer swim team," Curles said. "Austin was about 2-feet shorter than he is now and a lot slower.
"He's one of my captains because I knew I could count on him," Curles continued. "He and Jon Klem (the other senior captain) have been great leaders.
"With our program tripling in numbers this year, Austin has included the guys and got them excited. Austin's really compassionate and reaches out to all kids. He's good at seeing conflict and easing it."
Garrett comes from a family with a limited competitive swimming background. Mother and father, Susan and Rick, were not competitive swimmers; younger sister, Madison, chose singing over competitive swimming; but the one link to swimming appears to be older brother, Tyler, who did swim for the Blue Devils and is now serving a Mormon mission in Las Vegas.
"We don't know where the swimming talent came from; mom and dad didn't really do sports, and Madison is not into the whole competitive thing, but she is an amazing singer," Austin Garrett said. "(However), the biggest reason I did swimming was because my older brother did it. Tyler swam his junior and senior years (for Wa-Hi). We wish he would've swam his freshman and sophomore years, because he was good but could've been a lot better. When you're younger, it's cool to be like your older brother. When he was a senior and I was a freshman, we had a year together (on the swim team). That was fun."
Away from the pool, Garrett has maintained a diversified high-school career.
He carries a 3.78 GPA and is hopeful of continuing his education at Brigham Young University.
He plays drums in the Wa-Hi band, as well as playing guitar.
He has participated in the school musical and in Blue Devil track.
"I like to see myself as a good student," Garrett said. "I'm really liking AP calculus this year. Right now, I'm interested in the medical field (as a career path)."
Garrett has had a somewhat unique path to his success in the pool. He has not been a competitive swimmer since a young age, which is a path taken by many successful swimmers, but he has made himself into a high-level freestyle swimmer during his four-year Blue Devil career.
"He had not swam competitively until he was a freshman," Curles said. "He grew into his body and, (aided) with his work ethic, has worked with numerous coaches to keep technique, and has become a fast swimmer."
The freestyle has been Garrett's mainstay in the pool, and will take him to another state meet.
"I've been in freestyle since the beginning. That's what I do," Garrett said. "I think my coach saw that I had a talent in freestyle and liked me to swim the 200 and 500 my freshman and sophomore years. I built on that and it (swimming the 200 and 500 for two years) helped me grow. I was able to make it (the freestyle) better, and coach discovered my junior year that I could sprint. I'm glad we found that as long distance isn't my thing."
Garrett swims the sprints (50 and 100 freestyles) for the Blue Devils, but is also the anchor on the 200 medley relay and the 400 freestyle relay.
"My favorite is the 200 medley relay," Garrett said. "We all swim our best stroke and we have to work together with our relay dives and finishes. It's such a team effort that I like it a lot.
"It (swimming anchor) adds a lot of pressure," Garrett said of his role. "As you watch the race go on, it's an interesting feeling. You don't want to let the rest of the guys down, and since you're the freestyle, and everyone sees that as the fastest stroke, everyone comes up to you and tells you ‘it's all up to you.' Sometimes, I even like being behind as the adrenalin just pushes me to go. That last leg is one of the most mental parts (of swimming), because if you screw up, all those other amazing swims (before you) were done for nothing."
"Mentally, he's just what our relays need," Curles said. "That anchor is one of the most nerve-racking positions. Your whole team is looking at the position you're in when you get in. If that person has any problem with pressure, that's not the place for that person. Austin sees that pressure and it's done."
Garrett remains the Blue Devil leader in the individual freestyle sprints (50 and 100).
"The 50 and 100 are similar," Garrett said. "They are both all-out races. I put my Ipod and goggles on and sit there and visualize before the race. That helps me to focus and get my head in the game. When you get up on the blocks, I still get the butterflies in my stomach. As soon as you get into a certain speed, you can't go much faster. It's all about how fast you can turn off the walls, how hard you can push off, and how far you get out on your dive. That's what starts taking off the seconds."
Curles sees Garrett making another run at state hardware in both sprints.
"He's fast. He's qualified for state in the 50, and has unofficially qualified for state in the relays for the 100," Curles said. "We're waiting for that magic swim (in the 100) when his turn works and his start is good. He swam at state last year in the 50 and 100. He's taller and stronger than he was last year. He's having an incredible season and has really stepped up his senior leadership. He'll make a strong showing at state."
Garrett is looking at the opportunity to continue swimming after his Blue Devil career.
"I'm hopefully looking at swimming for BYU," Garrett said. "If things work out, I'll keep swimming in the spring to stay in shape. BYU is one of the best in the nation. I'm hoping that they'll see that I've only swam for four years and that I might have more potential and, hopefully, they'll see there is a lot (of potential) to work with and they'll want to work with that."
However, there is still a high school career to finish, and although swimming appears to be an individual sport, there is a Blue Devil team spirit that is pushing Garrett and his teammates.
"It's incredible, that on any team that I've swam for, swimming has a natural camaraderie," Curles said. "Anytime you're swimming multiple miles a day and doing absurdly challenging things with your body that you've never done before, and as long as you're encouraged to see that your whole team is there supporting you, there's no way you can't see it as a team sport."
"One of the biggest reasons that I swim fast is because of the team," Garrett said. "Of all the schools in our district, we are probably the best at cheering. You might be doing a lot of individual events, but if you didn't have your team screaming at you and cheering you on, it just makes you go so much faster."
If that screaming and cheering continue, the Blue Devils and Austin garrett may add a few more firsts to a season of firsts.