CUMBERLAND — Chris Payson had just given some of his older, faster swimmers a grueling set of four 800-yard individual medleys – for those who may not understand, each consisted of 200 yards of butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle.
He told them he'd give them a break on the time allotted for each 800: 15 minutes.
Naturally, there were a few audible groans, but these members of the Shamrock Swim Club nevertheless set out on their first.
While he stood on the Cumberland High pool deck, Payson, 44, perused the lanes, where kids ages 7-18 were attempting to complete workouts of different intensities, then said, “I'm really loving this.”
Payson then began the story of how he came to build his new team, which currently has approximately 40 registrants.
“Last winter, I was coaching at Crimson Aquatics at the Whitinsville (Mass.) Community Center (a satellite of the Harvard University-based club in Cambridge); I had been there since 2007, but I chose to resign,” he stated. “I just knew something was missing in my life.
“I ended up taking the summer off to think things through, but, sometime in June, some of my old swimmers from all over the area started calling me, asking me to coach them,” he continued. “They said they knew I wouldn't get out of it, that I needed to coach. The calls kept coming, and that's when I knew it was time to start my own program.
“It had always been a dream of mine to run my own club, but I always thought I didn't have enough experience. The kids kept saying, 'Of course you do,' and I still had my doubts, but I had a ton of support from family and friends, not to mention the swimmers.”
Payson admitted the task was painfully difficult, especially when it came to getting the approval of USA Swimming Inc., the organization in which teams nationwide must adhere to strict guidelines.
“I discovered that, for USA Swimming to approve a club for membership, you need a signed pool contract first; that means as a head coach you've got to take a huge risk because you need the pool time, and then hope – pray – the kids will come,” he noted. “I knew I had six to eight swimmers already signed on, but I was still worried. I was thinking, 'How are you gonna get another 40, 50 or 60 swimmers interested in joining?'
“This was back in August, and I will say that I got lucky,” he added. “I was able to get a contract for this (CHS) pool with the Cumberland School Department.”
When asked the amount of the pool rental fee, Payson said, “I'd rather not disclose that, but it wouldn't have been possible without the full support of Dr. Phillip Thornton, the schools superintendent.
“He was formerly the superintendent in North Kingstown when (NK native and current U.S. Olympic women's swim team member) Elizabeth Beisel was there, so he was very familiar with what a swimmers needs, what it took to become very good.”
At the beginning of August, his roster slowly grew to 12-15, and a few more joined for the club's first-ever workout in early September.
“I took it easy on them at the beginning,” he smiled. “By the end of September, we had 35 kids of all ages, and I could finally breathe easy again. That's when I knew I'd make it.”
It's amazing to think Payson was unsure if he could make it work, as he had been a stellar age group swimmer years ago. In fact, as a kid growing up in Attleboro, his parents enrolled him at Bishop Feehan High in 1982, but the school didn't have a swim team back then.
“When I was a sophomore, myself and another boy named Tim Card, from Mansfield, decided we wanted to represent Feehan at the (Eastern Mass.) South Sectional and state championships,” he explained. “That's really hard with the MIAA (the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association).
“I still went to Vic Bonneville (then the Attleboro High boys' coach) and asked him if we could set up a tri-meet when Attleboro was facing another (Southern Conference) team. I told Tim and I would be the third team. We needed to do that to earn the time standards you need to qualify for the Sectionals and States.
“I remember swimming the 500-yard freestyle and 100 backstroke, I forget what Tim swam, but we both qualified and represented Feehan, which was a dream for us. Vic was so supportive of us; if he hadn't, it could be Feehan still wouldn't have a swim team.
“You know what? Vic's granddaughter, Julia St. Pierre, is swimming for us now.”
(Turns out, the insistence of Payson and Card back in 1983 laid the groundwork for the Shamrocks to create boys' and girls' squads by the late '80s and early '90s. Payson has coached the Feehan teams for the past two years after taking over for former BFHS grad Kyle VanDenBerghe).
After graduating from Feehan in 1985, Payson swam at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, still coached by Russ Yarworth, as a freshman, and qualified for the Atlantic 10 Conference Championships held at Penn State. Incredibly, he can't remember if he placed in the top 16 in his coveted event, the 1,650-yard freestyle. (His best time in that event, he says, was about 16:30).
He left school in 1986 to help his dad, Dick Payson, in the family construction business, Porta-Form, Inc. of Attleboro. He claimed he worked side-by-side his father for over 20 years, but soon got
the itch to coach again.
In 1987, he went to the program in which he started, Hockomock YMCA, and led the Masters' program. A couple of years later, he became the head coach of the then-Attleboro Bluefish, and that's when he met ex-Feehan student-athlete Stephanie Motyl, currently his head age-group coach with Shamrock SC.
“The Bluefish back then was in flux, because the Attleboro High pool was being renovated,” he recalled. “Some parents called me and asked if I'd coach the kids, so I said, 'Sure.' We started building that program back up again. It was a struggle at first, because it had a reputation of being more of a recreational club, as opposed to one that was highly competitive.”
He coached with Motyl for three years, but Payson chose to leave because his work with the construction company became so busy.
A year or two went by, and Payson desperately wanted to return to coaching, so hitched on as a part-time assistant with the Cumberland Area Swim Team (CAST), then mentored by Carl Cederquist. He left once more in 1997, the reason being he began dating his eventual wife, and the couple wanted to start a family.
“When I got divorced in 2007, I wanted to get back into it again; I missed working with the kids, helping them get better,” he noted. “It's such a sense of accomplishment when you see them improve.
“This is something I've always enjoyed. I just have a passion for it, and I do want to give back, just like my coaches did for me. I actually swam for CAST as a kid and a teen, and my old coach was Kevin Thornton. I'll never forget what he did for me.”
In 2007, he returned as an assistant to the Bluefish, which had become Magnus Aquatics, and that team trained in Whitinsville. In 2010, Magnus became Crimson Aquatics, and the rest is history.
Payson wasn't kidding when he said he owed a lot to Thornton.
On a whim, he decided to look up his old mentor's whereabouts on Facebook, and discovered Thornton was the head coach for the Greenboro (N.C.) Aquatic Club.
“I just threw out a suggestion that I bring some of my top swimmers down to train with them over April Vacation, and he said, 'Absolutely, Chris! Bring 'em!' At first, he was shocked I had my own swim team, and that we were training at Cumberland High, our old stomping grounds, but we're going, and the kids can't wait.
“I'm bringing 11 senior swimmers, high school age, and we'll be there from April 15-20,” he continued. “I wanted to step up the intensity of our training; here, we only have a six-lane, 25-yard pool, but – down there – they have a 50-meter. I wanted these kids to get in some long-course workouts.
“Kevin is the kind of coach who's very intense with the older kids, and I think this will be a phenomenal experience for them to train under him. These kids in a year or two will be heading off to college, and they'll have a new coach then anyway, so this will help them prepare for that change.”
Right now, Payson has swimmers hailing from all over eastern Massachusetts, and they trek from towns as far away as Hopkinton and Holliston, Rehoboth and Seekonk. He admitted he doesn't have many from the Cumberland/Lincoln area, but definitely will accept anyone who wants to train under his and Motyl's tutelage.
Payson's club just recently merged with South Coast Aquatics, which works out at the UMass-Dartmouth natatorium under Dave Ponte. Payson indicated Ponte had been paying close attention to what Shamrock SC was doing for practices, etc. and wanted to sign on.
“I'd love to have more swimmers, because this fall I'm going to lose some high school kids to graduation, and we need to replace them,” he mentioned. “But I don't want to get so big where I feel kids are getting left behind. I like to be hands-on with each swimmer, and see how they're progressing individually.”
Case in point: A 14-year-old girl swimming in Lane 2 on this Friday afternoon. Payson asked her to wear forearm fulcrums, which in essence are paddles designed to “fix” her hand positions in the water while swimming butterfly.
“She had a tendency to bend her wrists up, and that was slowing her down; I think she's having a rough time of it,” he said with a grin. “But she needs to learn proper hand positioning if she wants to get faster. All the kids do.
“Honestly, the technology they have now (on the Senior National/Olympic levels) for swimming is unbelievable,” he added. “It's changed a lot since I swam. The kids around here just keep getting faster and faster, and it's uncanny. It's all got to do with the technology and improved training techniques.
“They've got a device out now called a 'Tempo Trainer,' and it's about the size of a quarter. I can program it to beep at any interval I choose, and a swimmer can place it under her goggles strap near the ear so she can hear it. The whole idea is the kid has to generate the hand speed to match the beeps, and that should bring them in on a faster interval.
“It's been out for about 10 years, and that's just one example. It's still all about being efficient underwater.”
Payson then called Chad Schreiber, a 17-year-old Cumberland resident and Feehan student, out of the water, and at least two girls in his lane yelled out, “Lucky!” Schreiber and his mates were about to begin that fourth 800-yard IM.
The coach previously had explained Schreiber had swum especially well at the New England Age-Group Championships at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pool in Cambridge a few weeks before.
In fact, the sprinter had posted personal-best times in the 50-yard freestyle (22.34), 100 freestyle (48.12) and 200 freestyle (1:45.88), and had come within two seconds of Junior National qualifying cuts in each. In the 100 butterfly, a race in which he placed ninth overall, he finished in a PR of 52.28, which was only three-tenths off the Junior National standard.
“After those swims, the college coaches became really interested in Chad; he wants to go to an engineering school, and I know Rensselaer was looking at him,” Payson said.
When asked how he came to join Payson's new team, Schreiber stated, “I was looking for something different from the club I was with, something with more of a family atmosphere. I also knew Chris was a fantastic coach, and that he'd look out for my best interests.
“I came here (to Cumberland) one day to train because I couldn't get to Whitinsville,” he said. “I had Chris for one day, and I liked it. I could tell he believed in me. He pushed me. When I competed at Age Groups, I never saw it coming because, at the beginning of the year, I wasn't that close to my best times. I was on plateaus; actually, at the bottom of a slope.
“The year before, you know, I was on my way to quitting completely because I was fed up,” he added. “I wasn't having fun anymore, but Chris and Steph believe in me, all of us. They believe you can be faster than you think you can. They got me to believe in myself through constant positive feedback and support.
“They were, like, 'Keep training, keep pushing yourself, and things will get better, I promise you.' Those words definitely took, it's as simple as that.”
For more information on the club, visit www.shamrockswim.com , or e-mail Payson at email@example.com .