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Swimming with the Detroit Lakes Sunfish

Sunfish swimming coach Grace Livermore instructs students inside the BTD Aquatic Center’s pool. BRIAN BASHAM/RECORD

When many people in the area hear the word “sunfish” their minds likely go directly to boats and bait.

However, for area youth enrolled in the Sunfish swimming program, the word is synonymous with dedication, hard work, and a lot of fun.

The team was established by a group of parents in the 1970s, and originally used the pool in the high school for practice.

Now run through the Detroit Lakes Com-munity and Cultural Center since 2006, the Sunfish swim team has grown rapidly in the past several years. Numbers have risen to 75 registered participants.

“We’ve got a great facility,” coach Nate Benson said of the community center’s eight-lane pool. “Not a lot of places around here have that.”

Benson, a former Sunfish swimmer himself, has returned to his home waters.

“I swam from the time I was 6 through the end of high school,” he said. “It was a big part of my life.”

Benson was officiating a swim meet for the Minnesota State High School League when he was approached last year about joining with Coach Sam Gulon to lend his swimming expertise to the Sunfish program.

While he hadn’t considered coaching swimming before, Benson said, “I gave it a shot, and I really enjoy it a lot.”

Sunfish swimmers currently range in ages from five to 17. Athletes newer to swimming can take part in the community center’s “swim school,” where they become experienced with all four competitive strokes before entering regular practices.

With a team so large and so varied in age, Benson said that initially, “the most challenging thing is learning how to adjust to everyone’s different skill levels and trying to find the best way to coach everyone.”

However, with help from Gulon and several high school swimmers, the coaching staff has found a system that challenges the athletes while allowing each swimmer to practice at their proper ability level.

Comparing the pre-sent with the past Sunfish teams of 100 swimmers or more, Benson said coming into the program as a coach, “my main goal was to try and build it back up to where I remember it being when I was younger.”

Participation has al-ready greatly increased from the 38 registered participants in 2007 when the Sunfish program experienced its first expansion from 18 swimmers in 2006.

While increasing numbers remains a priority, Benson’s goals for the team have also expanded since he began coaching.

Currently the Sunfish have an average of 25 to 30 kids that regularly choose to compete in swim meets, and the coaches would like to see this number rise, bringing a sharper “competitive edge” to the program.

The team atmosphere is another area of focus. Benson recalls having older swimmers to look up to, and hopes to reinforce a sense of team unity in the current group of kids.

Through the support of the coaches and dedication to practice, the swimmers learn the value of sportsmanship, work ethic, and striving to meet goals — a mentality that has already paid off in big ways for many of the participants.

“I’m really proud of some of our swimmers from this past season,” Benson said of the largest number of Sunfish in recent years who have gone on to compete in higher-level meets like ABC Finals and State.

Notably, Jennifer Tracy had great success at the Minnesota State club meet, and has qualified to represent team Minnesota at the Zone meet later this summer in the 9-10 age division.

“Sunfish was a big part of my growing up,” Benson said. “It taught me a lot of things and I’m excited to try and give back.”

Hoping to build a lasting impact through the Sunfish program, he said,“I want to continue with the kids that I’m coaching now and help them through that transition into high school.”

Even as local swimmers move on from the Sunfish program and graduate beyond high school swimming, many, like Benson, continue to embrace this lifelong sport.

Benson encourages former Sunfish swimmers and other members of the community to consider supporting the program, as the nonprofit organization can always use funds to purchase new equipment.

There are also plans in the works to form a booster club to support funding for the swim program.

For more information about joining or supporting the Sunfish, check out the website at, or swing by the front desk of the community center.

Article written by Libby Larson of Detroit Lakes Newspapers