As Phil Donihe stood pool side on the first day of practice for the 2017 summer swim season, he had one main question in mind: Can we do this?
As 250 boys and girls from all age groups hit the water to begin practice at the Fort Oglethorpe pool, there were a lot of doubts about whether a Catoosa County experiment could work. Merging the Ringgold Tiger Sharks and the Fort Oglethorpe Marlins created the Catoosa Great White Sharks in the Chattanooga Area Swim League.
"It was a big challenge for us in the beginning," said Donihe, the head coach. "We decided early on, when all of this came to be, that we had to meet every challenge as an opportunity."
As the practice on that first day got underway, one onlooker still had her reservations about the combined teams.
Beth Chappelear is a part of the Ringgold Tiger Sharks' royal family, for her aunt was Martha Denton, who years ago managed the Ringgold pool and started the Tiger Sharks swim team. At one point it was said that Denton taught all of Catoosa County how to swim.
For Chappelear and her cousins, spending time at the pool with Denton and the Tiger Sharks "was just what we did every summer," she said. "We didn't know anything different."
Chappelear swam for the team for more than a decade, and when she became old enough, she began teaching and helping the younger swimmers. She was head coach of the Tiger Sharks from 1995 to 2003. She has two sons who swam this year on the combined team.
The pool and the Tiger Sharks legacy held many memories for not only Chappelear and her family but for the entire Ringgold community. So when the city of Fort Oglethorpe approached Ringgold team officials about creating a much larger county team, the request was met with a lot of questions and hesitance.
"Initially, I was really, really disappointed," Chappelear said of the merger. "The Tiger Shark name was something that I never thought that we would lose. I always thought that my kids would forever swim with the Tiger Shark swim cap, and so (the merger) was really a disappointing thing for me."
And while it wasn't an easy decision, it was recognized that the merger would provide many more opportunities for Catoosa County swimmers.
Uniting to coach the new county team were Donihe, the Fort Oglethorpe coach, and Jackson Barker, the Ringgold coach.
"There was a common vision and common goals, and our strengths really complemented each other," Donihe said. "It was amazing that we were both able to really work together, and I think it was a huge benefit to have both the Ringgold head coach and the Fort Oglethorpe head coach come together."
The Great White Sharks went undefeated in winning the CASL's White Division in their inaugural season, and while that was nice, Donihe said that wasn't the team's most important achievement.
"I think it was very important on a lot of levels, but I think our record, the scoreboard, the White Division championship, our performance at state, those were not the most important things," Donihe said. "It was the process — the process that we sat down and planned through before the season."
That process included individual improvements in the swimmers. In fact the Great White Sharks were able to send 44 athletes to the state meet with 77 remaining for the 58th Annual Bill Caulkins City Meet this past weekend.
But now what?
The 2017 season is over. The Catoosa Great White Sharks swim team has been established. A successful season is in the books and many improvements have been made on an individual level.
Now the team sets it eyes on the establishment of a year-round program, which, according to both Donihe and Chappelear, would be exceptionally beneficial to the sport of swimming in the Catoosa County area.
And while the establishment of a year-round program was not the initial goal of the merger, it made its way to the front of the plans rather quickly due to the intense need of a year-round facility in the area.
"The demand is overwhelming, with no fault to Catoosa County, but there is a shortage of opportunity," Donihe said.
And after the success of the Great White Sharks this season, many believe the demand will only grow.
"We need the facility," Chappelear said. "Swimming in this area is definitely going to be something that gains a lot of attention. We have kids who are swimming in college right now on scholarships who swam for the Ringgold Tiger Sharks, a little bitty old summer team. Just imagine what we could do if we had a year-round pool."
According to Donihe, there are nearly 100 swimmers who have shown interest in a year-round program and facility, and that is in the works but still needs proper funding.
With a year-round facility, swimmers of Catoosa County would not have to travel into Tennessee or to the Dalton area to practice. Programs for both novice and advanced swimmers could be put in place, the Special Olympics could have a place to be held, and private lessons could be given year-round.
It is also important to note that while the Great White Sharks have doubled in size to include all of the athletes of the Tiger Sharks and Marlins, in competition the same number of competitors can race as before. An indoor facility could potentially allow for beginners to gain the improvements that they need to be competitive come the summer season.
"There really is so much that a pool could offer, so I am really hoping that the teams combining results in something," Chappelear said. "That was one of the biggest reasons why I eventually supported it, because in the long run that would have been something that Martha would have wanted for this community."
Even though a year-round program is still in the planning stages, everyone involved with the Catoosa Great White Sharks is hopeful, but for now they are enjoying the success of their very first season as a merged team. And for Donihe, the risk was worth the reward.
"There were a lot of challenges and a lot of doubts to whether or not we could do this, but we showed ourselves that we could," Donihe said. "So when I look back at the team, and when I reflect on that first day of practice when I stood there and watched 250 swimmers hit the water at the same time, wondering, 'Oh, my gosh, can we do this?' When I look back, there is a level of comfort in knowing that yes, we can."
For more information about the Catoosa Great White Sharks and the year-round programming email Phil Donihe at CoachPhil17@yahooo.com
Contact Tori McElhaney at email@example.com.