Uncharted Waters

The Carmel girls’ swim team has won 31 straight state titles, the nation’s longest streak of high school championships in any sport. The Greyhounds begin their quest for No. 32 this fall. Is there something in the water? We sent a writer and photographer into the deep end to find out.
The pursuit of swimming history officially begins in late October and on dry land, in Room E138, a small lecture hall on the second floor of Carmel High School. The 3:20 p.m. bell sounds over the whir of a floor buffer that inches down the empty hallways. The remaining students—a few dozen girls—file into the classroom and plop into the pale green seats in the front of the room or post up at one of the tables in the back. The sophomores, juniors, and seniors laugh and prattle as if it’s a reunion, while the handful of freshmen, not yet baptized in the Carmel chlorine, sit silent and nervous.

Coach Chris Plumb climbs onto the small stage, stands at the podium, and calls the gathering to order. He welcomes the newcomers, then issues a warning.

“Congratulations for being in this room,” he says to some scattered applause. “You have taken the first step. But there is a risk to being on this team: No one wants to be the first team to lose.”

Everyone instantly knows what Plumb is talking about—even though none of the students were alive the last time the Carmel girls failed to win a state championship. Neither were many of the assistants. Plumb, himself, was only 14 in 1986, when the Lady Greyhounds won the first of what would balloon into 31 consecutive titles—the longest streak, not just in girls’ swimming, but in the history of recorded American high school sports for either sex. Some of the girls in this room are second-generation Carmel champions who have been kicking and clawing in community pools and swim clubs since they were tadpoles. Regardless of pedigree, they all know what is at stake.

What truly sets Plumb and Carmel apart is the sheet stapled in front of the schedule, the one on Greyhounds letterhead titled Instructions for Being a Carmel High School Swim Athlete. Be organized. Be on time (better yet, early). Be coachable. Be an athlete 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Be tidy. Live (and swim) with great posture. These and other nuggets of wisdom echo the voice of a coach whose poolside signs (The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender), schedules (Ambition is the path to success. Patience is the vehicle you arrive in.), Twitter feed (Every challenge is an opportunity.), and speeches (Be quick, but don’t hurry.) are packed with pithy self-help soundbites that might bounce off a skeptical teen. But the swimmers barely blink while looking up at their coach. They’ve bought in.

“This is uncharted territory,” Plumb says. “But you guys get to demonstrate that when a group of young females comes together to serve something greater than themselves and put aside their egos, greatness can happen. I mean, we were on Fox News!”

The girls laugh. But after the talk and walk through the rules and expectations, as a group, they seem poised. Plumb releases them back downstairs to the natatorium. There they will put on their swimsuits, caps, and goggles, freshmen virtually indistinguishable from seniors, and jump in together.