Tsumani Swim Team members celebrate during the Candy Cane Splash.

Club swimmers from across the Kenai Peninsula gathered in Seward over the Dec. 4 weekend to compete in the annual Candy Cane Splash Invitational and newly created Gingerbread Dunk.

Boosted by the spotlight of Olympian Lydia Jacoby as well as a record-setting high school swim season, the Seward Tsunami Swim Club has seen an uptick in registration and numbers. The club consists of several levels: Dolphin, Bronze, Silver, and Gold. Of the more than 30 new swimmers, most fall under the Dolphin and Bronze category and have only been swimming competitively for several weeks. These kids are still adjusting to the ins and outs of proper technique, what consists of a disqualification or how to read a heat sheet. In addition, the slightly larger atmosphere that comes with a club invitational can often be too much for a child’s confidence. It’s not uncommon to see kids drop out of races simply because of anxiety.

“A lot of those smaller kids or newer kids can be easily intimidated by the stimulus, the stress, the lights, the noise. All of that,” says Tsunami Co-Head coach Solomo D’Amico.

As a result, the team decided to host a completely separate competition on Friday, before their traditional first meet of the season, calling it the Gingerbread Dunk. It consisted of mainly the newer Dolphin swimmers and gave them an opportunity to get their feet wet in the sport.

“In our last board meeting we were talking about how we can keep our numbers down but also get a new event or opportunity for our younger kids to go ahead and get a swim in without the pressure of being in the big kid meet,” D’Amoco pointed out. “We got them in. Got their first swim, essentially without a lot of pressure. I think they did great.”

This allowed the Candy Cane Splash to begin on a smoother note. Tsunami Board members and volunteers were able to set up the swim meet ecosystem a day earlier than normal, test out the electronic kinks, and discover ways to improve flow for the larger meet the following morning. Additionally, since there were fewer swimmers, there was less congestion on the pool deck and in the surrounding Seward High School hallways where the clubs were staged.

“It was a slight adjustment because usually our high school swim meets would be a much smaller group of people,” says Tsunami Gold swimmer Aaron Smith. “But I think we did a good job of letting people out in the commons and coming in to watch their teammates and family swim.”

As for the meet itself, it was the first real chance to see the entirety of the Tsunami club team in the water as only a few swimmers participated in the Turkey Time invitational in Homer two weeks ago. 

The invite hosted the Kenai Peninsula swim clubs: Kachemak, Peninsula Piranhas, Seward Tsunami, and the Soldatna Silver Salmons.

The meet started on a fast note with the only relays of the meet, the 200 yard medley. The Tsunami boys relay of Paxton Hill, Jackson Bird, Nickolas Ambrosiani, and Ben Ambrosiani took home first place with a time of 1:48.58. Seward kept the tide rolling with dominating showings in the 200 individual medley as Jackson Bird, Benjamin Ambrosiani, and Ronan Bickling finished 1-2-3 on the boys side.

Outside one disqualification in the 12 and Under 50-yard freestyle, all of the kids knocked off multiple seconds from their times coming into the invitational. Adelai Anderson and Noah LaRow in particular improved on their previous time by more than 10 and 20 seconds, respectively.

Tsunami Coach Greer Ethridge, who works primarily with the younger Dolphins, Bronze, and Silver swimmers, was excited by the showing.

“We’ve only been working for a month now. I can’t wait to see how much we improve over the next few months,” she says.

On the older side of the 50-yard freestyle, Mia Nappi raced to a first place finish, touching ahead of Soldatna’s Heidi Snyder for an impressive early season time of 26.37. Seward’s Esme Wilder, Rheanna E Smith, Maren Bickling, and Audrey Bird all improved upon their previous times. Nappi would add to her win total a bit later with victories in the 100-yard freestyle (58.20) and 100-yard backstroke (1:09.98).

Aubrey Wilder also had a solid swim in the 12 and under category of the 100-yard freestyle, taking home second place and improving on her old club time by more than 18 seconds.

Wrapping out the highlights, Olympian Lydia Jacoby won the 100-yard breaststroke (1:04.27) and completed her final competitive race in Seward. She will practice locally with the club team and compete in future meets but all of them are out of town.

The meet served as a litmus test for both the younger kids returning to competition and the high school swimmers continuing into the club season. Aaron Smith is one of those high school swimmers and he was excited to get back into the water after a bit of a break.

“It was my first time in the water in a long time. It was honestly immaculate,” says Smith. “I wasn’t feeling too confident at first but honestly just getting into the water, warming up a bit, it just really came all together.”

As for coach D’Amico, he likes what he’s seeing.

"A lot of our kids coming from the high school season look like they haven’t missed a beat, even though they’ve spent some time out of the water,” D’Amico pointed out. “Maybe a few more DQ’s than I would have liked to have seen but most of them are with the more inexperienced swimmers. You kind of expect that.”

With the first large meet of the season in the books, it’s back to the deck for the coaches and into the water for the swimmers as they work from their foundations while never forgetting the end goal.

“Get better every day. I know that’s generic and cheesy but that takes care of the outcome if every day you’re passionate about the process and getting better every day,” says D’Amico. “That’s more important than saying we need fifty Junior Olympic qualifiers for us to feel like we’re decent. It’s about a lot more than that. It’s about being dedicated to the process, the journey, day in, day out. Grind or shine.”

The Seward Tsunami Swim Club will compete next in the Winter Splash at Bartlett Pool in Anchorage on January 7-8.