It is arguably the most successful sports program at Robert E. Lee High School.
Taking a sample size of just the past 25 years, this sport has produced a combined 41 district championships, too many regional champions to list, the Class 5A Region III boy and girl athlete of the year the past three years and has had a representative at state for six of the past eight years.
All Lee swimming does is win, win, win no matter what.
Lee sports have experienced recent downturns — a combined three wins the past two years in football, boys basketball enduring a five-year playoff drought, girls basketball with no playoff wins since 2005 and volleyball without a playoff win since 2008. Others, like baseball, softball, golf, tennis and track went into last spring with high expectations, but finished somewhat unsatisfied.
This week Lee is competing in six events at the UIL Class 5A Swimming and Diving Championships in Austin.
To put that in perspective, the only way an individual or relay can guarantee a qualification for state is to win their event at regionals. Unlike track and tennis when the first two finishers book their trips to Austin, in swimming, it’s either win and go or don’t and hope your time is good enough.
Head coach Matt Franks said REL expects to bring back medals in at least three of those six events.
“This is the opportunity to seize the moment, especially in an Olympic year when people are going to pay more attention to (our sport),” Franks said. “(Our seniors) want to go out on top. That is a driving force that I don’t think can be quenched by anything but (state medals).”
It’s more than just that.
This is a chance for Lee swimming to get the notoriety it deserves.
When setting up to take a photo for this piece, the only way to get sufficient light into the Tyler ISD Aquatic Center was by raising garage doors on the far end of the antiquated building that the pool is located in.
It sports seven lanes, has little to no room for any spectators and was deemed unsuitable to hold a meet.
But despite its digs, Lee swimming keeps producing as evidenced by the countless district and, more recently, regional championship banners that surround the pool.
“What no one realizes is there have been near 20 All-Americans in Tyler,” Franks said. “It just goes unnoticed because there are not the huge mausoleums (dedicated to swimming) like you see in Southlake Carroll and other schools. Like Rockwall, they’ve built a beautiful facility and they are going to get the swimmers. They are drawing people to the sport. Out here, we are just working with what we’ve got. Before this pool was built, we were over at the YMCA. It’s basically like a big bathtub, but it shows what heart and determination these athletes have.”
Maybe that is what has kept Lee from making the jump from district and regional success to state glory.
Franks said the Red Raiders haven’t been on the podium for a medal ceremony at state since 1991. Todd Bricker set a school record in 100-yard breaststroke to win gold while Brandon Short captured two individual medals and both helped the medley relay team take bronze.
Meredith Oliver, Sam Lewis and Michael Quam could each win an individual medal while the boys 400 freestyle relay team of Lewis, Quam, Stephan Umierski and Jack Oliver also aim to bring back some hardware.
Oliver and Lewis, the reigning regional swimmers of the year, along with fellow senior Quam, will be making their fourth trip to state.
“I feel like we need to end it with a bang; we’ve wanted to progress every single year so I want us to produce something big (this final time),” Quam said.
Oliver, a Texas A&M signee, is the lone female representative from Lee this year at state. She qualified for the Olympic Trials this summer in two events and enters with the fourth best qualifying time in the 200 freestyle and the second best in 400 freestyle. The top seed time in both events is from Fort Worth Paschal’s Julia Anderson.
“With the way it looks now and given the fact that we went into regionals tired and she still swam her best time, she knows what she needs to do,” Franks said about Oliver. “I think she’s easily going to be on the platform and really Julia Anderson is the only person who can take the state title away from her.
“Julia has signed with Stanford, so you’ve got two girls who’ve signed with two of the top 5 schools in the country and that really will be the battle for gold.”
Lewis, a University of Texas signee, is seeded second in the 500 freestyle and fifth in the 200 freestyle. Like Oliver, Franks expects Lewis to be wearing at least one medal around his neck on Saturday.
“He’s posted one of the fastest 500 freestyle times in the nation this year,” Franks said. “There is maybe one person in the state that can beat him in that event.”
Franks said Ted Singley of Southlake Carroll is Lewis’ biggest obstacle, and he enters with the top qualifying time.
Stephan Umierski and junior Jack Oliver are swimming at state for the first time.
Lee’s relay is seeded 15 out of 16 qualified teams, so it may be a little too much to ask for the Red Raiders to make the medal stand in this event.
But Franks said Lee wants this performance to bring back to the magical year of 1991.
“It’s that rare air that they are charging at right now,” Franks said.