‘Early birds’ lead girls swimming and diving teams

Experienced athletes return to Camas, Washougal programs

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The Camas High School girls swimming and diving team takes time out from swimming laps for a quick picture during a recent practice session at Cascade Athletic Club in Vancouver. (Wayne Havrelly/Post Record)

School days start extra early these days for student-athletes on the Camas and Washougal high school girls swimming and diving teams.

Every weekday at 5:30 a.m., the girls hit the water at the Cascade Athletic Club in east Vancouver, training together in the facility’s indoor pool. It’s a crowded scene – Evergreen School District programs practice at the same time just a few feet away in club’s outdoor pool. For Mike Bemis, in his 18th year as the Papermakers’ coach and third year as the Panthers’ coach, finding water for his swimmers has never been more difficult.

Bemis has been forced to move CHS teams to four times since he started coaching the Papermakers.

“We’ve lost four pools in that time – Marshall Center, Hough Pool, Propstra and Lacamas Swim Club,” he said, “so right now 11 of the biggest schools in the county are all using private facilities which could be taken away at any minute.”

Bemis is crossing his fingers that Camas voters will approve a new aquatics center in November.

“If we build a facility here, we could have district tournaments which would bring 500 swimmers and their families to town,” he said, “and besides that, too many people drown in Lacamas Lake and the river, and we need some water to educate the community.”

A drowning tragedy is what got Bemis into swimming about 60 years ago. He grew up on a lake outside Kent, Washington, where he witnessed his 3-year-old sister Nancy drown.

“A neighbor girl was a lifeguard at the time for the pool in Enumclaw and she made the rescue and tried CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and unfortunately it didn’t work,” he said. “But through that tragedy I became a lifeguard and started swimming.”

Bemis, 72, has coached prep and collegiate swimmers for more than 52 years. He rises at 4 a.m. every morning to go to practice sessions, then drives more than 300 miles per week to get his three divers to practice sessions in Kelso.

Bemis’ passion and dedication to teach young people is as strong as ever, and so is his humility.

“If the kids want to do it, then I’m there to make sure they can get the pool time they need to perform,” he said.

Learning discipline, time management skills through swimming

This year’s CHS team is led by senior captains Hope Yim and Bailey Segall.

Segall, who competed in the 4A state meet last season, has been swimming competitively since she was 6 years old. She says the sport has brought discipline and a family environment that helps her deal with life’s challenges.

“It really pushes time management,” Segall said. “You see a lot of our girls are also club swimmers, so we’re swimming for an hour and a half in the morning and then we are coming back for a two-hour practice after school, so managing that with all the school commitment from an early age, having that extra commitment, really makes your organized.”

Junior Paeton Lesser also competed at the state meet last season, finishing eighth in the 100-meter freestyle and 16th in the 200 medley. She was named as the Greater St. Helens League swimmer of the year.

Sophomore Natalie Kevis, who transferred from Snohomish, Washington, and junior Sidney King, who just moved to Camas from the east coast, will add to the Papermakers’ depth.

“We lost a few good swimmers last year, but our experience and new transfers have more than made up for the loss,” Bemis said.

A record 34 girls turned out for the CHS squad this year. Three of those girls are divers, who have even bigger pool challenges than the swimmers.

“I drive them to Kelso on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and then they go on their own to Tualatin Hills to train on Wednesday,” Bemis said.

Sisters Irelyne and Shealyne McGee are back this season for the Papermakers. Both qualified for the state meet last season. Shealyne is also a star gymnast on the CHS state champion gymnastics team. Lili Ford, another gymnast, is also diving for the Papermakers.

Panthers program growing fast in third year

When WHS added girls swimming three years ago, only three girls turned out for the team. This season the Panthers are 15 swimmers strong and several bring a wealth of competitive experience.

WHS is led by captains Charlotte Baker and Kaylin Schmid, who were part of the Panthers’ 200 free relay team that placed 15th at last season’s 2A state meet.

Merritt Jones, who was also part of that relay squad, returns for the Panthers. Julieanne Baker, Jessica Nute, Grace DeShazer and Mary Lendvoyi are also key members of the team.

Charlotte Baker, Sdhmid, Jones, Julieanne Baker, Nute, DeShazer and Lendvoyi have already qualified for November’s district meet.

With both programs growing fast, a second assistant coach was added to help Bemis train the girls. He believes both teams will do well at district and state meets this season, but is especially proud of what his student-athletes are accomplishing in the classroom.

“The last few years our kids average GPAs (grade-point averages) have been 3.5 and above for over 20 swimmers on varsity,” Bemis said.