Gilroy Gators a model club program

Payton Reeder is one of the standouts for the Gator club program. Photo courtesy of Anthony Fuccella.

With an impressive coaching resume that spans since 1972, Wayne Norris is no stranger to success. Norris, who has had coaching stints at the NCAA Division I level along with a nationally renowned club program, is in his second year with the Gilroy Gators. The Gators have been around for 35 years, developing hundreds of swimmers who went on to be standouts at Gilroy High and Christopher High.

“I wanted to give this a chance and see what it was like on the West Coast,” said the 67-year-old Norris, who prior to his arrival was an assistant coach for the Club Wolverine program in Michigan, which is nationally recognized as a USA Swimming Gold Medal Club. “Growing up, all of the great swimmers came from California, and you felt like this was the birthplace of great swimming.”

Norris has liked what he’s seen so far. The majority of the 60 to 70 swimmers in the Gators program range in age from 6 to 14 years old, meaning there is plenty of talent to hone and develop going forward. Some of the standout swimmers include Payton Reeder, Hannah Stelzner, Emma Van Laar, Emiliano Grieco, Valentina Grieco, Brianna Sandoval, Priam Yadav and Emma Van Laar.

All of the aforementioned swimmers did well in the spring short course Junior Olympic Meet in Pleasanton, as they all hit times to qualify them for the long course Junior Olympic Meet July 6 to 8 in San Jose. Stelzner finished in eighth place in the 1000-yard freestyle in 11 minutes, 22.17 seconds in the 11 to 14 age division, and Van Laar also placed eighth in her event, the 500 free, clocking a 5:37.24 in the 11-12 division.

Reeder, Van Laar, Yadav, Stelzner and Sandoval all qualified to race an event or multiple events in the summer long course Junior Olympic Meet. Reeder, who also qualified for the summer long course Far Westerns, had a spectacular short course Junior Olympic Meet, finishing second in the 1000 free and 1650 free, sixth in the 200 butterfly and 500 free, and eighth in the 200 breaststroke.

Reeder, who is an incoming freshman at Gilroy High, qualified for the upcoming Far Westerns in each of those events. In March, Reeder competed in the Pacific Swimming All Star Meet, and in August she’ll compete in the prestigious Western Zone All Star Meet in Roseville in the 13 to 14-year-old age division.

“I’m really proud of her to get invited for that,” Norris said. “They choose (only) 12 swimmers from each age group to participate in this meet. She’s done really well to get invited to that event.”

Reeder, 14, thoroughly enjoyed her experience at the short course Junior Olympic Meet.

“It was really fun, especially to be there with friends,” she said. “I’m stronger and I know how to pace myself for the longer races. After placing very high at the Junior Olympics, I felt very proud to go so far.”

Reeder hopes to produce some of her fastest times ever at the Far Westerns, something that is feasible considering she can focus and hone in on the event.

“When you go to a big meet, you train for certain events and that can be a big factor in dropping your times,” said Reeder, who has an all-time best finish of 14th place in the Far Westerns, accomplished in the spring in the short course event. “My short-term goal is to get in the top 10.”

Norris said Van Laar is also a swimmer with plenty of promise.

“Emma has really come into her own within the past year,” Norris said. “Her times have dropped at such an amazing rate it’s kind of shocking. She’s right on the tail of the 14 year olds time-wise, and is a sparkplug who likes to race. She’s already set a lot of team records as a 12 year old, hitting qualifying times in the 13-year-old age group. When she does age up, she already has those qualifying times.”

Norris still gets a kick out of seeing new swimmers perform a stroke correctly, and for good reason.

“You know if they learn to do it correctly and start training a little harder, their times will start dropping,” he said. “Seeing your swimmers improve is always something to look forward to everyday.”

Norris brings a tremendous coaching pedigree to the Gators program. He’s coached at the college level for 32 years—both as a head coach and assistant—which included stints at Clemson and Virginia Tech. Just as important, he’s coached at just about every level, from youth to seniors.

“I’ve coached every type of swimmer, from the youngest all the way up to swimmers qualifying for the Olympic Trials or NCAA Championships,” he said. “What I’m doing now is fun. I enjoy watching the younger kids more than the older kids. It’s great to watch them do something they’ve never done before. It makes me feel proud.”

Norris’ enthusiasm to see the really young kids improve makes him the ideal fit for the Gators, whose program has a large contingent of swimmers 10 years and under. Norris has a goal of getting the club roster number to 100 within the next couple of years. In respect to long-term goals, Norris hopes to develop a swimmer who reaches beyond the Far Westerns level.

It would be great for a Gator swimmer to reach the sectional level, which is a step up from Far Westerns. But Norris isn’t discounting a future swimmer advancing to an even higher level like the Futures, Junior Nationals and Senior Nationals.

There is no denying the positive impact the Gilroy Gators swimming program has had locally. Cecelia Rojas, who is the assistant coach for the Gators and the Gilroy High junior varsity coach, said the Gators are inspired by love for the kids and for swimming.

“We urge kids to come to team try outs that take place twice a month offering a swim group that will fit every ability level from beginner to adult masters swim,” Rojas said in an email to the Dispatch. “We offer scholarships both to participate with the team as well as for when our swimmers leave us for college. As a non-profit, Gators have secured top 5 earners for Gilroy Garlic Festival several years in row working all available volunteer days from set up to trash pick up in order to maintain monthly dues that are lower than any other USA swim club in the Bay Area. Gators is volunteer run, paying only for its coaching staff who are really only there every day because we love it.”

Hannah Stelzner had a standout performance in the spring short course Junior Olympic meet. Photo courtesy of Anthony Fuccella.