At the beginning of last year, when St. Helens junior boys' swimmer Ryan Maher was really starting to make a name for himself by throwing down fast times in the 100-yard butterfly and other races, head coach Chelsie Orr pulled him to the side for a heart-to-heart.
She told Maher he was going to start getting a lot of attention, from the general public, from the media, from outsiders, for his swimming exploits. His twin brother, Jake, was on the same path to stardom as well. And as Orr and most associated with the sport well know, swimming can breed a sort of self-serving individualism when a star begins to explode.
But what makes the Mahers into megastars, besides their speed and ability, is their meekness. They're not boastful or egotistical in the least, but rather selfless, grateful and team-first. It is why success won't change them, even after they help make school history.
At the Class 5A state championship meet on Feb. 22, Jake Maher took third in the 100 breaststroke (1:00.87) and Ryan Maher placed sixth in the 100 butterfly (54.91) to become the first Lions to reach the 'A' finals in more than seven years. All Orr asked last winter, both of Ryan and his brother, was that they didn't let the praise get to their heads and become the sort of young divas that did a disservice to their true character. The deferential duo won't be deterred by prosperity. Their path has been paved by humility. They're grounded with little interest in the limelight.
"(Ryan Maher) looked at me and said, 'I'll never do that,'" Orr said. "It's been over a year they're still as humble as they were back as freshmen. You couldn't be prouder of two athletes who put their whole heart into the sport. They're the kindest and most humble kids. Other coaches in the NWOC will comment on them because everybody notices how fast they are, but they comment on how nice they are. They make friends with kids on the other teams. They come from really amazing parents who raised them well into great young men who are really fun to be around."
In Columbia County, there is an unofficial, unsaid arms race between Scappoose and St. Helens. Being compared to the Indians, who have the recent tradition and state success, is admittedly difficult, especially now that Scappoose is in the 5A classification and suites up in the same Northwest Oregon Conference district as the Lions. But Orr said the coaching convictions are poles apart in terms of beliefs. St. Helens' culture prides itself in sportsmanship and not showing a whole lot of showmanship when it comes to competing. The Lions don't alienate other programs with gusto and guff but believe in competitive respect and goodwill toward other teams. Still, to watch Jake Maher finish higher than any other Columbia County swimmer at the state meet while Ryan Maher put points on the board for St. Helens was particularly sweet. This, after the Lions' 200 medley beat out the Indians for first place at the district championship meet with a former Scappoose swimmer Isaac Reed. Scappoose exacted revenge at the state level, but the Lions made a bold proclamation when it comes to the Seven Mile War. The rivalry wasn't one-sided before, as some might allege, and it surely won't be going forward.
"It makes me feel like we're up there, too, and we're a strong team as well," Orr said. "Scappoose is a great program with really fast swimmers, and we tell them that all of the time. That speaks for itself when you look at their wins. But as far as integrity and character I stand strong in that we're the winners in that area. It's a different philosophy over there and they produce a different type of swimmer then we do."
Reed was a huge part of the 200-medley relay and stepped in at crucial juncture during the season. One of St. Helens' relay members stepped away from the team early in the year, leaving a vacant opening on a squad that possessed state meet hopes. Reed, who transferred to St. Helens for his senior year, had a huge hand in helping the Mahers and junior Nick Brooks set a new school record in the medley and ultimately take 10th at state.
"I told him I felt like he was the one with the most potential to fill that spot," Orr said. "I felt like he had what it took. He did really well with it, and now he'll have his name up on the team record board. Having him come from Scappoose was very fortunate for us."
Jake Maher is not the emotional type. Orr said he stays "calm, cool and collected" at all times, never getting out of his element. He wasn't nervous before the state final, but eager to prove his place.
"Jake knew he belonged in that top group of swimmers in the state," Orr said. "He wasn't intimidated by the kids who swim faster than he does. He went out to do his best, to show that he could focus on his own race and get himself in the top three."
Ryan Maher crushed the 5A preliminaries. Afterward, he told Orr and assistant Jared Plahn that he could "feel" like that it was a fast race and it was at 54.19, which clinched a berth in the 'A' finals. Saturday's championship heat was focused on carrying over the same tendencies and Maher swam a 54.91 for sixth place. The fact Ryan Maher came in at under 55 seconds twice was worth celebrating as he moves forward into his senior year.
Orr said she felt the prelims were actually more intense than the finals because the crowd was bigger, there were more swimmers around the pool deck and patrons in the stands. The championships brought about a higher level of excitement as the Mahers were marched out of the waiting area to the starting blocks with their fellow finalists with each announced individually by the public address announcer. It was the twins' first time at state. Orr's too, as a coach. Nerves were to be expected, but each Lion was fearless when it came to hitting the water.
In the three years Orr has been at the helm, St. Helens has taken 11 individuals and three relay teams to the state meet, a substantial number considering how young the program is and how it's still in the building phase. Now, they have two state finalists who just so happen to have a year of high school eligibility left to build around in 2020-21.
"It adds to the upward growth and the positive curve we want to see in our program," Orr said. "There are times I doubt myself as a coach, as everybody does sometimes, and it helps to see where we've come from. It reiterates that the program is going somewhere and it's going the direction I want it to."
At the end of every practice, the Lions stand in a circle and sometimes even hold hands just to stand together as a team in a very individual sport. They encourage each other in the hope that they'll encourage others, a belief that bears fruit when an opponent is the last competitor in the water and St. Helens is on the side of the pool cheering him or her on to the wall. Since freshmen and sophomores make up a big portion of the Lion team, that sort of ethos is all they'll know as they grow into the program as upperclassmen. St. Helens doesn't have lots of club swimmers like La Salle or Wilsonville or area kids who swim club and automatically feed into the high school or even a youth program. They have to attract kids from their own hallways, influence them to try a new sport and then get them up to speed in three months. Having a couple of poster boys in the Mahers helps that recruiting cause. So does team successes like the 200-medley relay and Orr's welcoming, encouraging coaching style. There are athletes to be had and Orr hopes St. Helens' recent run of accolades will help bring those able bodies to the pool.
"In order to have success, we have to build in numbers," Orr said. "We were the second smallest team in districts out of eight. When it comes to districts, numbers matter. In order to move forward from here, I feel our successes are hopefully giving us some reasons for kids to want to try out our sport."
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