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When Duncan Olney and Liz Willis started the G.R.E.A.T. (Greater Rapid and Ellsworth Area Team) in 2006, the club had two swimmers and plenty of goals for what the club could be.

This year, the club has 81 members.

Thirty Seven of those swimmers were at the annual Christmas Classic, hosted by the Rapid City Racers club at the Roosevelt Swim Center. The tournament plays host to 13 clubs from South Dakota, North Dakota and Wyoming, 33 events and 238 athletes.

Racers coach John Kramer, whose club has 78 members, has been with the club for a year and a half and said he's already seen the sport grow in the area during his short time with the club.

"Overall, you see in this area that a lot of programs are building up, and we’re all kind of rising together, so all the coaches kind of pat each other on the back and say ‘job well done’ (during the Christmas Classic)," he said. "A year and a half is enough time to see a little bit of growth, and a little bit of development. Because we’re so close with the G.R.E.A.T. swim team, we can see them grow in practices and meet results, the better that G.R.E.A.T. gets the better we get."

Some of the other clubs in western South Dakota were also in attendance, like the Deadwood/Lead 76ers and the Black Hills Gold. Clubs from Mitchell, Pierre, Chadron, Gillette, Newcastle and Fall River also made their way to Rapid City.

"I think it’s neat to have all these swimmers come from around the area to our community, and to give it their shot," Willis said. "For some of them it's their first swim meet and it either makes them or breaks them, and for some its an old hat. It’s really important for them to come to Rapid City and get a swim meet at the beginning of the season."

Willis and Olney have seen the sport and their club grow in the last 11 years. They said the sport has a lot of valuable lessons that are applicable to life outside of swimming.

"We’ve coached quite a few years on and off for the last 20 some odd years, we work really well together and we work really well with children," Willis said of her relationship with Onley. "All of our children are trophies, not just one or more, they’re all valuable to us and our team.

Willis also had high praise for Olney, comparing him to a Rapid City coaching legend in a different sport.

"Duncan Olney is to swimming what Dave Ploof was to baseball, and that’s very true," she said.

Olney denied the claim but said he likes coaching swimming because of what it can teach athletes about real life.

"They learn their goal setting, they learn dedication to something and work their scheduling," he said. "When they get to that senior level they’re here at 5 o’clock in the morning, they swim until 7 and then they’re back here at 6:30 p.m. to swim another time until 8:30. They have to go to school in between that and get their homework done so it’s a scheduling priority and they get their goal setting."

Although they are rivals in the pool, the Racers and G.R.E.A.T. have similar philosophies of coaching.

"A lot of coaches feel as though they don’t just coach, they’re teachers," Kramer said. "We hope that they build character, swimming reveals character, we’re hoping that we’re building great people here. People that hold themselves accountable.

"They learn hard work, delayed gratification, they learn a lot of things that will make them better individuals in life, not just swimmers."

G.R.E.A.T. will be going across the state to participate in the Sioux Falls meet next weekend, while the Racers will next be in action at the Deadwood-Lead meet, beginning Jan. 6.

The short-course season goes until March, where the state 'B' meet will be held in Sioux Falls while the 'A' meet will be in Pierre.

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Contact Geoff Preston at geoffrey.preston@rapidcityjournal.com

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Sports Reporter

Sports reporter for the Rapid City Journal.