When Parker Ramsdell made the decision to leave his teaching job in Arizona to return to Northern Virginia for a career in politics, he could not fathom the thought of no longer working with kids.
So he picked up a gig as a coach for swimming, a sport he mastered growing up in Oakton and the Northern Virginia Swim League, with the York Swim Club.
"I love working with kids. I love seeing them achieve and the look on their face when they just get something for the first time," Ramsdell said. "And I wanted to apply that to swimming because of the life lessons the sport has taught me. The individual determination swimming requires, the self-discipline to get up at 4 in the morning and to keep pushing yourself. The life lessons I learned from swimming, I wanted to pass along to kids."
When he found the job posting at Oakton High, he applied and crossed his fingers the elite program would choose him. Last year, the school saw its girls team and a second-place finish at the state championships after an undefeated regular season. In 2010, the boys team won the state championship title, but fell just short of postseason glory in 2011.
"I threw my hat in the ring and I was lucky enough to have them choose me," he said.
Ramsdell may have graduated from crosstown rival Madison High School in 2003, where he helped his team earn district titles in 2001 and 2002, but stepping in front of the Oakton swim team on the first day felt like coming home, he said.
"I know a lot of these kids from previously coaching the years ago. Four or five of the graduating seniors, I taught them how to swim when they were 8 and unders," said Ramsdell, who is a former team member and coach of the team based out of Oakton Swim & Racquet Club. "To be able to work with these kids who have grown up to be such great people, it was one of the main reasons I wanted to coach at Oakton."
He also hired his own coaching staff, bringing in Holly Wheeler and Brent Willess, both of whom coached at Oakton Swim & Racquet Club with him.
While he started with the team knowing several of the students already, the vast majority of the more than 70 swimmers were unfamiliar faces — but not necessarily unfamiliar names. When Ramsdell realized the talent he had on his roster, he knew he walked into a potential championship team.
"You look at the roster and you see names like Philip and Janet Hu, and Carter Sharer and Conor Murphy and Brian Phillips and Gillian Crews and Laura Branton, and it's just awesome," Ramsdell said. "But what blew me away more than anything was just the wealth of talent that we have in this area and on this team. ... There's not a weak spot on this team."
He credits his team's depth for completing the regular season undefeated, pointing to the team's ability to win with a different meet sheet each week.
Ramsdell said much of the depth comes from a talented freshman class that helped the teams avoid a drop in points after graduating a strong senior group that included Kaitlin Pawlowicz, who .
"We leaned heavily on those freshman throughout the year and they definitely responded and helped us accomplish our goals," Ramsdell said.
But even with all that talent, success is never a guarantee. With a new coach comes a new coaching style, and it is impossible to know how a team will respond to a new philosophy.
Ryan Santoro, a senior and captain of the boys team, said Ramsdell and his staff made a smooth transition onto the team using a laid-back approach that Santoro said has helped the team become even more unified.
"He brings a good attitude, but at the same time works us hard. It's a different mentality than previous years. He understands we each have a hard work routine, especially the Club swimmers, but he still tries to bring us together," Santoro said. "He trusts us and our work ethic, and it really works for this team."
Ramsdell is deliberate in keeping things light-hearted, fun and sometimes goofy because he wants the swimmers to feel relaxed heading into a race.
"We train hard, but the intensity comes out of a desire to do well. It doesn't come from me yelling and screaming and hooting and hollering," he said. "We want to push them to their limits so they know what their limits are, but I think we can do that in a positive way."
The swim and dive team will compete in the Concorde District tournament this weekend at Cub Run Recreation Center, where their undefeated record becomes irrelevant to their path in the postseason.
"We have to really bring it in districts because Chantilly is right on our heels," Ramsdell said. "I feel confident the kids are going to swim out of their minds, but we're not going to take anything for granted. We're going to have to work hard."