Swim­ming a fam­ily tra­di­tion for Ell­wangers

Ell­wanger brothers fol­low fa­ther’s foot­steps in swim­ming

The Covington News - - News - Josh Briggs Sports Edi­tor

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.”

Josh Briggs/The Cov­ing­ton News

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.

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