Madison Patel has seen about everything with the Dothan Dolphins swim team. Patel, 16, has been with the squad for 11 years.
“There was a small period, maybe when I was 10 or 11, that I kind of lagged out and tried to do other sports like volleyball,” Patel said after Friday morning’s practice. “I came back here. … I missed it.”
The commitment she’s made to herself and her team really doesn’t come into focus until you realize the Dolphins practice almost daily and it is a year-round organization.
“We average about 90 kids on the team, year round, and five to seven days a week in the pool,” said Dawn Melancon, treasurer of the parent-run Dolphins Booster Club, which supports the city’s swim team.
“We swim from (ages) 6 to 18. We start with an hour-long practice and work up to 2½ hours a day. We have water practice four days a week, we have dry land one day a week and we have Saturday practice almost every week. In the summer we’re every morning 7:30 to 10. They’re very dedicated.”
And they’re very successful when they compete. The Dolphins are preparing for the upcoming Alabama Recreation & Parks Association (ARPA) state meet this weekend in Opelika. Dothan’s team had 61 swimmers compete in the recent District 6 meet and 50 qualified for a spot to the state, which is one of their biggest meets of the summer.
The team also competes in Southeastern Swimming, perhaps a more competitive branch of the sport than ARPA.
“We’re in both Southeastern Swimming and the ARPA, so we swim 12 months out of the year, at least one swim meet a month,” Melancon said. “In the summer we have the ARPA district and state meets. All throughout the year we swim with USA Swimming.”
In fact, many of the team’s top swimmers weren’t at practice Friday because they were competing at the Southeastern Long Course Championships in Huntsville.
The team still has its sights set on the upcoming state meet.
“State is really big. It means so much to me because it could be such a big difference in my times and it could show who I am,” said 11-year-old Oliver Parsons, who had a fine district meet and will swim in five events at state – the 50 free, 50 back, 100 individual medley and the 200 medley relay and 200 free relay.
Parson is in his fourth year with the Dolphins. He was pumped that so many of his teammates also qualified for the state meet.
“I think we just pushed it hard because we knew it was about to be time for the state,” he said. “I’ve been looking forward to this meet all year. I’ve been practicing and practicing.”
Emmalee Borcik, 13, is in her third year with the Dolphins. She, too, qualified for state in each of her events – the 100 IM, 100 free, 50 breaststroke and the 200 free relay and 200 medley relay. She said she sees the hard work paying off.
“My times have gotten lower and my dives (into the water to start a race) have gotten better,” she said.
But she doesn’t do this only for the medals.
“It’s good exercise and it’s fun. You make so many friends here,” Borcik said.
That’s not limited to teammates. Close friendships spring up at practice as parents wait for their children.
“We’re here every day on these chairs and benches,” Melancon said. “It’s a big family, really. When we go off to a meet we usually sit together. It really is like a family.”
Hopefully it’s fun for the parents, because the commitment is hardly limited to the competitors when you’re talking five and six days a week in the pool. They have been taught for the past 25 years by “Coach John,” the remarkable Jin Ri Jiang.
The Dolphins also draw members from surrounding towns and communities like Ashford, Headland, Enterprise, Wicksburg, Rehobeth, Taylor and Midland City, Melancon said.
A veteran like Patel may have seen it all, but she can still be surprised. Informed that one of her relay teams is seeded first in the state meet, she perked up.
“Really?” she said, eyes lighting up as she thought about teammates Kate Baker, Saylor Strength and Kai Zhang. “That’s really cool.”
There are a lot of things Patel likes about the Dolphins, including competing and the social aspect. Her favorite moment, she says, is the feeling she gets after a race.
“When you’re finishing a race – like, my favorite is the 100 back – and you’re struggling to get there because the end is coming,” she said. “As soon as you touch the wall, it’s like that moment of satisfaction, especially if you win. It just makes you really happy inside.”
Patel won the 50 back at the district meet and was second in the fly and breaststroke. She’s also on the 200 medley and free relay teams.
All of her personal best times went down at district and she’s hoping for even better at state.
“I did have trouble turning on the wall. I slipped a couple times,” she said. “But that just means I can improve more at state.”
Overall Dothan Dolphin Swim Team winners for District 6 meet
Hadley Fretts, 1st
Jordana Wright, 1st
Hope Wood, 2nd
Matthew Walter, 4th
Ayla Bushing, 1st
Emily Selig-Pineda, 2nd
Abby Bollinger, 3rd
Oliver Parsons, 1st
Seth Short, T-1st
Elijah Sekers, 2nd
Madelyn Bushong, 1st
Abrianna Jacobi, 2nd
Allie Melancon, 3rd
Judson Stanford, 1st
Chase Jones, 2nd
Cody Wagoner, 3rd
Carl Forrester, 4th
Kloei Kiefer, 1st
Isabbelle Melanson, T-1st
Gabi Bushong, 2nd
Holley Hart, 3rd
Emmalee Borcik, 4th
Alex Gauldin, 1st
Braden Ginther, 2nd
Josh Melancon, 3rd
William Tolleson, 4th
Kai Zhang, 1st
Madison Patel, 2nd
Saylor Strength, 3rd
Kate Baker, 4th
Naomi Jacobi, T-4th