“They say that the kids who participate in crew and/or swim are some of the highest achieving kids and have the highest GPAs,” said Woodbridge Senior High School swim coach Cindy Woll.
Woll first heard the saying from her coaching mentor, Wayne White, who coached the Vikings for many years while Woll served as his assistant; and in Woll's experience, the saying holds true.
“It's because they have to be so scheduled,” said Woll. “When you're that busy, you have to stay scheduled and you have to stay focused. Those are the types of talks we have everyday after practice: stay focused, eat plenty, drink plenty, rest plenty and stay on top of your studies.”
Woodbridge placed second overall in both the boys and girls Cardinal District championship meet this season. Several of Woll's past athletes have graduated with grade point averages higher than 4.0, and she currently has a valedictorian on her team (Mark Hannan). Yet, in-between rigorous practice schedules—that included 5am workouts—and a dedication to academic excellence, the student-athletes still found time to accomplish something that will have a lasting impression, something much greater than any sporting or academic accolade.
“Your heart doesn't grow any bigger than when you help out a little kid,” said Woll.
For the first time in the swim team's history, the Vikings participated in Readers Are Leaders, a program dedicated to mentoring elementary school children on how to become better readers. Readers Are Leaders was created in 2003, and 15 high schools throughout Northern Virginia have volunteered; the program exclusively uses high school athletes as mentors. Each sports season brings about a new set of volunteers, and until this year, it was usually the Woodbridge basketball teams that volunteered during the Winter. While the mentors can receive community service credit towards graduation requirements for their participation in the program, only one of the volunteers from the Vikings' swim team applied to receive credit.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity to volunteer for something I hadn't really done before,” said senior Kelsey Lisbon.
The Vikings regularly participate in food drives; however, this year was the first time in which the team took a more hands on approach towards community service. In fact, Woodbridge had so many athletes volunteer for Readers are Leaders that Old Bridge Elementary had to find extra kids to participate in the program; 36 of the 53 Woodbridge swimmers volunteered for Readers Are Leaders.
“I volunteered for my Vacation Bible School a couple years ago, and it was a blast, so I thought I'd enjoy doing this,” added senior Nic Barefoot.
The benefits of Readers Are Leaders for the elementary students are fairly evident: the student learns the importance of reading, builds a bond with a teenager who serves as a role model, and improves his or her reading skills in order to perform better in school. However, there are also benefits for the Woodbridge athletes, especially for the swim team.
“The kids are also introduced to a sport other than the ones they see at home: basketball, football, baseball,” said coach Woll. “They probably know that there's swimming at the pool, but they don't think of it as a competitive sport. So, it also introduces these kids to swimming as a sport.”
Additionally, the individuals who act as reading mentors learn something about themselves and what it means to be a role model.
“I learned that I enjoy reading to children as much as I enjoy reading to myself; and I take a lot of time to read to myself, so that was pretty cool,” said Barefoot.
“I kinda want to be an engineer, which doesn't have anything to do with kids, but now it has opened my eyes and made me think about what I actually want to do,” added Lisbon.
The groups affectionately referred to each other as their buddy, and the bond between buddies seemed to grow rather quickly, reaching beyond simply reading. The buddies met only seven times throughout the swim season, but in-between chapters, they talked about home life and aspirations for the future. Dixia, Lisbon's buddy, shared her aspirations of being an author and even told Lisbon about a book she wrote that has been entered into a contest to be published. Unfortunately, Dixia missed the last Readers Are Leaders meeting and Lisbon never got the chance to read the book.
“It was really sad,” said Lisbon of Dixia's absence. “I really wanted to say bye and to let her know that she affected my life too.”