Swimming a family tradition for Ellwangers
Ellwanger brothers follow father’s footsteps in swimming
A typical summer evening at home for Denise Ellwanger can turn from tranquility to madness within minutes as an empty house is quickly filled with her husband, Gregg, and three boys.
When he walks in with their sons, Drew, Robbie and Joey, everyone is hungry after a day at the pool. Thus is the life of a family of swimmers. Luckily, dinner is served late.
The Ellwangers are all swimmers. If they (the boys) aren’t working as lifeguards at the Covington YMCA, they’re using the pool for training. Gregg, a physical therapist and athletic trainer at Rockdale Medical Center, is the one responsible for all the late night dinners in the Ellwanger household. He was a collegiate swimmer at the University of Georgia and passed his love for water down to his eldest son, Drew, then later his fraternal twins, Robbie and Joey.
The family had been part of a neighborhood swimming facility in DeKalb County that also had a summer swim league. When the family moved to Newton County from Atlanta in 2001, finding a place to swim became a challenge.
Newton County had no organized swimming programs and for four years, the boys didn’t swim. Then Drew went to get his lifeguard certification and an instructor in Athens asked if he swam competitively. Soon, Drew got back into swimming competitively and immediately started having success. By age 16, he was in the top 30
in the state in the breaststroke and was improving his times rapidly.
When Drew started high school, Eastside didn’t have a swim team. Gregg approached then Eastside athletic director and current principal Dennis Rodenberry about starting a team in 2007. The Eagles swam as a club that year and Drew was able to swim at the state high school meet as a United Swimming Association swimmer under the Eastside moniker for two years.
“(Dennis) Rodenberry was very receptive,” Gregg Ellwanger said. “He was open to the idea so we put together about four or five kids that year and got things started.”
Around the same time, Gregg approached the Covington YMCA about starting a swim team. He said he received a similar response from Louley Hay-Capp and the staff at the YMCA, and he set the pieces in place for the team, which has won three of the past four Rockdale County championships.
“They were very open to it,” Gregg Ellwanger said. “They said, ‘go for it. We haven’t had a swim team in 10 years.’ That first year we swam exhibition, but we’ve done very well since then against some very good competition.”
Drew continued to swim well at USA meets and started to garner attention from college coaches. By age 17, he had several coaches actively recruiting him and he parlayed that experience into a college opportunity at Garner Webb University in North Carolina where, like his father, he swims the breaststroke.
Like father, like son with a twist
If you didn’t know Drew and you saw him walking on the beach, you might mistake him for a defensive back and not a swimmer. He has the abs of a guy who spends countless hours in the pool. But he also has the shoulders, chest and arms of a football player.
Part of the reason for Drew’s physique is the stroke he swims. The breaststroke requires more power, especially from the shoulders and chest. But more of it can be attributed to weight training. And while he looks like a football player, he doesn’t train like one.
“There wasn’t as much science to training in swimming outside of the pool as there is now,“ Drew said. ”Now they‘ve broken it down and we isolate muscles and have focused on stroke technique and looking at how to create less drag with your body in the water and the technique is really an emphasis.”
When Gregg Ellwanger was a collegiate swimmer, they didn’t lift weights. That’s all changed. Drew lifts weight regularly as part of his training regimen and he does focused exercises that have helped transcend swimming.
The weight training has paid off. Drew is constantly improving his times to the point where now he has his eyes set on making All American his senior year. He shaved a second off his 100 meters time in his first two years and has three more to go to get in that discussion. Maybe more than anything, the improvements have staved off the burnout swimmers typically experience when they stop improving swim times.
“A lot of kids start when they’re very young and they’ll be really good but the problem is, they burn out,” Drew said. “With all the yardage they swim so early on, they’ll just get tired of it and their bodies just can’t do it anymore and they won’t get any faster and they’ll just quit. With weights, I felt like that can boost your times up because you’re constantly getting stronger.”
Unlike his father, Drew is a sprinter. His best event is the 100 meters breaststroke though he’s also good in the 200 meters. He also runs the breaststroke leg of the team medley relay and has scored points in the 50 meters freestyle, the premier event in swimming. Training has evolved so much since Gregg graduated from UGA in 1981 that Drew’s best time in the 100 breaststroke would have placed him top 10 in the country three decades ago.
The future of swimming in the county
On any given night when the Ellwangers return from swim practice, Robbie and Joey are just one of two sets of twin brothers storming through the door after a tiring day in the pool. Jack and Matt Mitchell are also fraternal twin brothers who swim. Gregg says the four boys are “joined at the hip” and they share a special bond as twins.
“They’re very close,” Gregg said. “You'll always find the four of them together doing something.”
The two sets of twins currently swim on Eastside’s team, which is now a full-fledged Georgia High School Association team. Angela Mitchell, the Mitchell brothers” mother, is the school”s coach. The Ellwanger twins will be juniors and have two years left while the Mitchells have three and all four boys swim together for the YMCA and on Gregg’s USA team.
In the winter, Gregg coaches the Rockdale Riptides, — his USA team, out of Rockdale County because Newton County doesn’t have a facility to swim out of. This season he’s hoping to use Oxford College’s pool, the only indoor pool in the county. That’s something he hopes changes someday.
“It would be great (to have an indoor pool in Newton County),” Gregg Ellwanger said. “But obviously, with the economy and everything else, it’s tough. We’ve talked about it. The big issue for the county isn’t necessarily building it. It’s keeping it running and maintaining it.”
Thanks to Gregg and the Ellwanger brothers, swimming in Newton County has grown into a competitive sport. The Covington YMCA swim team passed 100 members this year in only its fifth year as a group and just won its second straight Rockdale County swim league championship.
Gregg said he’s proud that his sons have followed his footsteps but is also quick to point out that it’s up to them how far they want to take it. For now, both Robbie and Joey hope to follow their father’s and brother’s footsteps and swim after high school.
“There’s opportunity to swim but to swim on the collegiate level, you have to be awfully dedicated,” Gregg Ellwanger said. “There's a high degree of burnout. You swim year round and unlike running, where you can miss a week or two, when you're out of the water for two weeks, it takes a while to get back into it.”
As long as an Ellwanger is swimming competitively, there will be swimming in Newton County. What the future holds beyond that is unknown. The Mitchell brothers are a year younger than Joey and Robbie and their younger brother Nick is already showing promise in the pool. Whatever happens, the family’s dedication to the sport it passionately enjoys together has given other young athletes opportunities they didn't have before.
“What’s tough about swimming is, you’re not going to get a bunch of exposure,” Gregg Ellwanger said, “but it’s a sport that will get you into college. Swimmers typically do very well academically and they go on to be successful professionals, teachers, lawyers and doctors. They graduate. They’ll make it.”
Gregg Ellwanger and his three sons, (from left) Drew, Robbie and Joey, take a break from training at the Covington YMCA. Drew swims at Gardner Webb University while Joey and Robbie are rising juniors on Eastside's swim team.