By Jeff Nations
You really couldn't blame Steve Shaffer if he'd chosen to walk away from the pool, never to return, decades ago.
Once a promising high school breaststroker -- he earned All-American status in 1977 at his Philadelphia-area high school -- Shaffer's future in the sport seemed unlimited. At Indiana University -- the same program that produced his early idol, Mark Spitz -- he swam for two years under arguably the greatest American swim coach in history, James "Doc" Counsilman, before transferring to American University to finish out his career with an eye toward making a run at the Olympic Games.
The timing couldn't have been worse -- it was 1980, and the Moscow Olympics were off-limits to American swimmers after President Jimmy Carter announced a boycott over Russia's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Just like that, Shaffer's dreams of competing in the U.S. Olympic Trials were over.
It was enough to make a person bitter, maybe enough to walk away.
Shaffer chose to stay, and swimmers in Shenandoah County have benefited from that decision for two decades now. The swimmer turned swim coach has been guiding athletes to push their limits in the pool for much longer than that, but his impact on the Shenandoah Valley swim scene began in earnest in 1993 when he helped found the Shenandoah County Swim League. And that impact still resonates, as evidenced by the job Shaffer did at Central High School this season. In his second year as the Falcons' head coach, Shaffer led Central's boys squad to arguably its best season yet in the pool. The Falcons swept the Shenandoah County meet, finished a strong second in the Bull Run District meet and Region B meet, and advanced a slew of Group A swimmers to the Group AA/A state meet. For that, Shaffer is The Northern Virginia Daily's 2012-2013 Boys Swim Coach of the Year.
"It makes it a whole lot easier when you have kids with great desire and a little bit of talent," Shaffer said. "It was a fun year."
The Falcons accomplished that with 12 boys on the roster -- or 11, after sprinter Daniel Molina had to end his season prematurely to undergo knee surgery for a football injury.
The momentum for Central started building last year, when Shaffer took over the Central program after leading Massanutten Military Academy's swim team the previous 18 years. In Shaffer's first year coaching the Falcons, the team broke 10 of the 11 school records. This year, Central's boys rewrote the record book again with eight new school marks.
"The kids just keep getting faster," Shaffer said.
Shaffer has a lot to do with that. During the regular season, the Falcons served notice that they would be a serious player in the district race by beating all their Bull Run foes in dual action, except for perennial powerhouse George Mason.
At the district meet, that's just how it played out as Jonathan Feaster's district championship in the 100-yard breaststroke highlighted a strong day for Central.
"We were closer to George Mason than third place was to us," Shaffer said. "We were a strong second in the regular season, and certainly that carried over in the championship meet."
The Falcons kept right on competing the following week at the Region B meet, scoring another second-place finish behind the Mustangs and landing six boys swimmers (and two girls) in the state meet field. Feaster and Trevor Wolf qualified in two individual events each, Travis Hamilton and Jacob Lineberry also earned spots as individuals, and John Paul Schechtel and Aaron Waller helped the Falcons fill out an impressive three relays that made the state cut.
"From a team standpoint, probably the most encouraging thing was our three relays," Shaffer said. "All three of them, with different personnel in each one, took second place at the Region B meet and earned a place at the state meet."
At the state competition, the personal bests kept coming for Central. All three relays scored their best times of the year, as did Hamilton in the 50 free. Still, Shaffer thinks the Region B meet is where his team shined the brightest.
"At the region meet they had a lot to swim for, a lot of pride," Shaffer said. "The pond was a little bit smaller and the kids were a little more motivated individually."
Shaffer returns the bulk of his squad next year, and rest assured he won't shy away from the water.
"I still try to swim as much as I can," Shaffer said. "I really enjoy going in the water with the kids. They always look forward to Coach getting into the water."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>