Coach Kenneth Spencer (standing, left) and Pedro Vinheiro Pereira watch their swimmers during practice at Colman Pool in West Seattle. Photo by Rayna Stackhouse
Coach Kenneth Spencer (standing, left) and Pedro Vinheiro Pereira watch their swimmers during practice at Colman Pool in West Seattle. Photo by Rayna Stackhouse
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Jocelyn Crawford is crouched in a hotel lobby chair in Texas dreading the next day. She has traveled all the way from Capitol Hill in Seattle to compete in a national swim meet, but she is sick.

Adding to the disaster, she and her roommate are accidentally locked out of their room.

Unsure of her abilities, Crawford is thinking of throwing in the towel. But her new swim coach, Kenneth Spencer, will not let this opportunity pass her by.

Crawford is a 16-year-old rising junior at Garfield High School and swims for the Central Area Aquatic Team (CAAT).

“I haven’t been sick on many trips,” Crawford said, “but a lot of coaches are like, ‘Well, if you don’t want to swim, that’s fine,’ but Ken was like, ‘I know you can do it. You don’t want to, but you can swim some of your events. I know you can do it.’”

A more competitive atmosphere

CAAT is a swim club that has a membership of 170 swimmers mostly residing in Capitol Hill. The small coaching staff of seven to nine is excited to see what the future holds under Spencer’s leadership.

Spencer is drawing from his experience as a swim coach in Maryland and Seattle for 20 years. He also has experience as an elementary- and middle-school teacher, a competitive swimmer and a collegiate rower, and he currently runs a pool-operations company.

Spencer’s resume includes Coach of the Year for 2009, 2010 and 2013, voted by the American Swimmers Coaches Association.

Hired in March, Spencer wants the club to have a more competitive atmosphere. Before he was hired, members of the team saw a more playful, fun culture on the team. Kids would throw food and run around at the meets, viewing them as social events.

“It is easy to say that you have a competitive atmosphere and that you’re focused on a competitive team, but a lot of people, including myself, didn’t realize what that was until Ken came,” Crawford said.

“I think the way things have changed, just in the few months since he has been here, is pretty remarkable,” said Masters team coach, Karla Ruff, who coaches the Masters team of 18-and-older swimmers, which practices at 6:10 a.m. on weekdays. “I think the kids are really benefiting from this new style, which is a lot more structure and very specific skill-building.”

The Seattle area boasts around 32 swim clubs so each club makes sure its mission, vision and coaching style will attract membership. Spencer and the rest of his staff realize that increased membership will come with a team that is driven and offers more than fun.

“I want my kids to be hanging around people like the CAAT swimmers,” Spencer said. “They are focused, they’re driven, their work ethic is good and they are great people who do great things.’”

Showing improvement

Ruff is only 22 but has been coaching the Masters team for six months. When she first met Spencer, she sensed his determination to changing the team for the better. She walked into his office and sat down. He said, “Tell me about the future of this team.”

She was not expecting his directness, but after intensely discussing the team, Ruff and Spencer decided part of their mission should be to offer improvement to their members.

Their improvement mission can be seen in their focused teaching styles and top-down approach. Spencer decides the different skills the different team coaches should focus on. The coaching staff then focuses on only a couple different skills to not overwhelm the swimmers..

“We did a whole week of doing video recording, which is pretty cool,” Ruff said. “I set up my little digital camera and videotaped everyone swimming a 50- [meter], and then we sat together and watched them swim and pointed out things they could work on.”

Spencer is using his expertise to inspire and show them what determination can achieve.

“I keep getting drawn back to swimming because of the brutal honesty of it,” he said. “The clock doesn’t care about your feelings, nor does the pool, so all you really have control of is what you do and how you approach it and how you work and change to make yourself better.”

CAAT’s practice times are subject to change. For more information, visit www.swimcaat.org.