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Pine Forest swim team recognized for academic success at state meeting

Coach instills athletes with commitment to classroom obligations


State championships are always special, but the one Pine Forest’s boys swim team earned at this week’s annual meeting of the N.C. High School Athletic Association in Greensboro could pay lifetime dividends.

The Trojan swimmers were recognized as the association’s boys swim team with the highest grade point average in the sport this season, 3.884 on a 4.0 scale. 

The Trojans are coached by Jen Ryan, a former swimmer at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Ryan had never coached swimming until she accepted the Pine Forest job three years ago.

“I started coaching during COVID,” she said. “I absolutely love it, love the kids.”

Like all swim coaches and swimmers in Cumberland County, Ryan had to buy into the ongoing challenge of getting practice time. With multiple teams and limited pool space locally, swimmers have to adjust to practicing at unusual hours.

Pine Forest caught a break this year. The Trojans were able to practice close to their school at the College Lakes Recreation Center pool. Instead of the typical dawn patrol hours, they were given a practice time of 6-8 p.m.

But practice time was not Ryan’s only concern. She stressed academics.

“You’re a student-athlete, not an athlete-student,” she told the swimmers.

Ryan always put academics first and was flexible with her athletes when it came to the importance of practice over the books. If they had a major project to finish, faced a big test ahead or needed some tutoring, all they needed to do was let her know.

“They are really good about that,” she said, “pushing through and making sure they stay on top of it. At the end of the day, you’ve got to pass your courses.”

That can be challenging in swimming, especially when the team practices in the evening. By the time most of her athletes are headed home, the only thing they feel up to is sleeping.

That daily challenge left Trojan swimmers like 2024 senior Dominic Canali and 2024 junior Jaime Rodriguez Marin juggling their schedules to make time for everything.

“It really comes down to hours in the day,” said Canali, who sometimes set alarms to get up early and do schoolwork before going in the next day.

Whenever possible, he tried to use the time available from the end of school each day to the start of practice at 6 to get his work completed.

“The hardest part is consistency,” Marin said. “You have to make sure and stay disciplined. Go every day to practice, even the days you don’t want to go.”

He said it was a hallmark of the entire team to be consistent and work hard.

“We know how to plan our days to get our work done,” he said.

Canali praised Ryan for the way she worked with the team.

“She was so forgiving and understanding about what it takes to be a student-athlete,” he said. “I think it helped a lot of people on our team.”

“These kids have a lot to be proud of,” Ryan said. “We’re smart cookies”

Basketball player a winner, too

The other major winner from Cumberland County at the NCHSAA annual meeting was E.E. Smith basketball player Jelani Gaddy, who won the Region 4 Willie Bradshaw Memorial Endowed Scholarship.

In addition to playing basketball for Smith, Gaddy was drum major for the Magnificent Marching Machine. He also volunteers with a homeless ministry and community outreach program.

This fall, he will enroll at North Carolina Central University and become a member of the NCCU Sound Machine, playing the bass drum. He plans to study kinesiology.


Follow Earl Vaughan Jr. on Twitter @EarlVaughanJr

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Cumberland County, Pine Forest, sports, swimming