A lane of their own: Washougal swimmers break from Camas

The Panthers have their own girls swim team, coach for the first time

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Washougal girls swimming coach Denise Croucher (right) and Hockinson girls swimming coach Michelle Jacobs-Brown (center) demonstrate proper technique during a practice session at Lacamas Athletic Club on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

For the first time, Washougal High School girls swimmers have a team of their own.

The Panthers, who have practiced and competed with the Camas High girls swim team since 2003, broke away from the Papermakers this season as a separate squad.

Denise Croucher is the team’s new head coach.

“We were definitely all really excited to get our own coach and our own team, and get some of our own recognition and get some more help,” Washougal High senior Grace DeShazer, captain of the Washougal girls swim team, said. “Everyone has a really good attitude about it, and we all really like (Croucher). She’s a really good coach.”

Scheduling difficulties led to the creation of the first-ever Washougal girls swim team. Camas High starts its school day later than Washougal High, so when the Camas swim team decided to start practice sessions at 8 a.m., Washougal team members realized they would already be starting classes by then, as their school day starts at 7:50 a.m.

“Had the school schedules been more conducive, I think it actually might have stayed a co-op,” Croucher said. “But it just wasn’t feasible. (Washougal School District leaders) had thought about getting their own coach in the past anyway, and they decided this was probably the right time. Instead of asking nine girls to miss the first two periods of school, it made sense to get their own coach.”

The Panthers will practice in the early evenings at Camas’ Lacamas Athletic Club, benefitting from the increased pool space and instruction from a coach that can focus on nine swimmers rather than 50.

“(The Camas coaches) could only afford (to give the Washougal) girls one lane,” Croucher said. “Nine girls in a lane is not that good because you’re going to have (everything) from ‘I’m still learning things about the strokes’ to ‘I’m almost a state swimmer.’ Now there’s seven in a lane at the most, so they’re really getting a lot more attention, and I can know (a lot of detailed) information about them. It’s better for the Camas girls, too, because now they have more room in their lanes, and they’re going to get more attention.”

Croucher said the swimmers “are quite excited” about the new arrangement.

“They feel like, ‘Wow, this is really cool. We’re really part of something,'” she said. “I was worried that some of them might be like, ‘Now I’m on this dinky little team,’ but I tried really hard to instill from the very beginning that being a little more compact and personal was actually going to be a really good thing. We’ve done a few things that you really couldn’t do if you had a bunch of swimmers. I had a couple of girls say to me, ‘Wow, I know everyone’s name,’ and I just don’t think that was possible before.”

DeShazer agreed swim practice is “a lot different” now.

“Even just having more room makes so much (of a difference),” she said. “With Camas, there were so many of us and limited lanes, and it would be hard to swim — you had to stop because everyone swam at different paces and ran into each other. Having less kids in your practice group, you get so much more help on your technique because your coaches can really watch you instead of worrying about how many other athletes are in the pool. I feel like it makes a big difference in a lot of aspects of swimming.”

As one of the leading figures in the East Clark County swimming community, Croucher was a natural choice for the head-coaching position. She owns the Lacamas Athletic Club, where she teaches swim lessons; founded the Lacamas HeadHunters swim club in 2008; and served as a coach for the Camas and Hockinson swimming teams in previous years.

“I think she’s brought a lot of advantages to our program,” DeShazer said. “I feel she cares more about our techniques and the small things rather than a lot of conditioning, which is really helpful. I feel like a lot of us needed that. And she brings a great attitude to everything.”

The Panthers have a range of experience among their ranks this year, from year-round club swimmers to relative beginners. Croucher’s main goal is to see all nine of her swimmers qualify for the 2A District 1 meet, which will be held in early November. The Panthers are off to a good start, with six of the team’s nine swimmers already qualifying for the district meet.

In order to achieve their goals, the swimmers are focusing on versatility and well-roundedness. DeShazer specialized in the 100-meter breaststroke and 100-meter backstroke events during the first three years of her high school career, but will spend more time on the other strokes this fall.

“A good thing about them being on the Camas team is that they do have an event that they’re quite good at,” Croucher said.

Being a part of the much-larger Camas team, however, meant many of the Washougal swimmers never truly learned everything they would have on a smaller team.

“I’ve spent a ton of time teaching these girls how to do all of the strokes and how to do the individual medley,” Croucher said. “I feel like I can literally put any one of them in any event and they might not be fast, but they could do it, and that’s a huge accomplishment as a coach, so I feel really good about that, and I think they feel really good about it, too.”

Croucher said she has already “seen a lot of improvement” from her swimmers.

“At the bigger meets, like the jamboree and pentathlon, every team from Southwest Washington was there, and even with that, we weren’t last,” Croucher said. “When you realize you’re going against teams with 30 or 40 girls and you only have nine, you’re doing pretty good if you’re not last. At our dual meet, we took second in every relay out of the four teams, so that was pretty good. They can get in there and compete.”

DeShazer said she thinks her team’s best chance at qualifying for the 2A state meet will come via the relay events.

“We (usually) take a relay to state, and we have really strong relay teams this year,” she said. “Everyone’s doing really well and improving. A lot of us (are part of) a club team, so we swim year-round, and our freshmen are doing well and bringing a lot to the team. Some of them haven’t really swam before, but they’re picking things up quickly and have great attitudes.”

Croucher said she is already thinking about long-term plans and goals for the program, which she hopes can post a top-three district meet finish in the next several years. She said swimming “has proven to be one of the safest sports as far as COVID goes,” noting that local club swimming has thrived during the pandemic and swim-lesson registrations “were up 150 percent over 2019” on the local club level this summer.

Croucher is hoping to grow the Washougal swim program.

“I think there’s a lot of families in Washougal who are now investing effort into swimming, and I see it as a great growth opportunity,” she said. “When I got the job, I … looked at a list of the swim lesson sign-ups to see how many of them live in 98671, and about 40 percent of them were from that zip code. That’s super good news for the future of Washougal swimming, because if kids learn to swim, they’re more likely to be interested in the swim team.”

DeShazer said she has seen the team grow just over the past few years.

“With our team being so small, we’ve had some struggles in the past with getting a little bit of representation at our school because we were a part of Camas,”she said. “But our program has grown so much since my freshman year. And now, being on our own, I feel we’ve got a lot more leeway in getting ourselves out there and getting athletes to come and find out that we do have a swim program. And we just started a booster club, so I feel it’s definitely growing.”

Croucher hopes the Washougal boys swim team also will be able to separate from the Camas program this winter, but said no final decision has been made for the boys team yet.

“We hope to have our own team, but we have to get enough boys (to turn out) so the district decides it can afford to pay for lanes and all that,” she said. “I’ve only been officially hired for girls, but I’m hoping that I’ll get to (coach) during the boys season as well. Getting enough boys to come out will be the key. One of the things I’ve thought about doing is talking to the cross country and track coaches because swimming is a really good cross-training for running.”