“Through recreational swimming we promote healthy and positive opportunities that allow children to develop the values of physical fitness, sportsmanship, commitment, and accountability that will empower them to be champions in an out of the water.” — Dolphins’ Mission Statement
What indelibly comes to mind when thinking about the town of Placerville? El Dorado High? The Bell Tower? Placerville Hardware? Main Street? The Mountain Democrat? Gold mining and logging? The railroad?
Also ingrained in the area landscape for the past 46 years has been the Dry Diggins Dolphins youth recreation swim team. Since 1966 when Ken Kenworthy formed the program, the Dolphins have been a local fixture on the summer circuit. “Dry Diggins,” Placerville’s earliest name, preceded the infamous “Hangtown” moniker.
Situated in an area surrounded by natural water ways, it’s understandable the Dolphins’ appeal is widespread. Not many who share the local zip code haven’t heard of or know someone who has/is affiliated with the team. Next year, a third generation swimmer hits the water, a testament to the Dolphins’ positive, family-friendly environment — and staying power.
The Dolphins are members of the Valley Foothill Competitive Aquatics League and are 2-0 after wins over Auburn and Orangevale. Currently, 213 kids grace the program with a coaching staff of six led by Kristen Stumbaugh, herself an accomplished swimmer, and in her fifth season as head coach. Her oldest, Brooke, helps coach while Carson, 17, Parker, 13 and Zoe, 6, compete.
“The Dolphins have such a tradition with a lot of community involvement,” Stumbaugh said. “I’m constantly asked ‘what is it about the Dolphins?’ and it’s that it’s such a positive program. Every coach knows every kid’s name and they feel like they belong, are wanted and needed. It’s a unique program — not just about swimming.”
While the goal in recreational swimming is to introduce young swimmers to the strokes to help them learn and enjoy the sport, Dolphins get so much more: camaraderie, life-long friendships, resiliency, composure and sportsmanship that all add up to the development of individual character.
The team’s connection to its swimmers is a big reason so many return to help as Lauren Clifford did at a clinic. Clifford, a collegiate swimmer who still holds team records, is a two-time Olympic qualifier and along with ex-Dolphin Mikaela Macklin, eligible to compete for a spot on the 2012 USA Olympic team at the recent US Olympic Time Trials in Omaha, Neb.
“That’s cool — to have kids go on and succeed (at the college level) and then come back to where they started to help the little ones,” Stumbaugh said. “Mentors are huge to the program.”
The Dolphins haven’t always enjoyed smooth waters. The economic downturn several years ago forced the city, due to budget cuts, to pull its funding and the Dolphin organization into scramble mode. The team received the news the Monday after the 2009 season finale, made calls on Tuesday and had a game plan in place on Wednesday.
“After hearing we’d be cut we walked out to the parking lot and said ‘no way, it’s part of Placerville — it can’t stop,’” Stumbaugh said. “The city made the hard decision to let go but there was just too much tradition to let it go. Yeah it was a bummer and it happened but our choices were to complain or make something happen.”
The swim team sought advice and decided, behind the efforts of Stumbaugh, her husband Sean, Craig and Kelly Clifford, Tom and Julie Williams, Chris and Zanjai Illich, Ann Owen and others who stepped to the plate, to transition to an all-volunteer parent-ran program.
The group eventually formed Gold Rush Aquatics, Inc., a non-profit organization registered with the state of California. The Dolphins, with a parent board, were on their own from staffing, administration (negotiating pool rental) and liability issues; to responsibility for such items as the sound system, tables/chairs, canopies and stop watches. All funds and fundraising rested entirely upon the team’s shoulders.
“Money is always an issue and it’s a lot of work — the more parents help the better,” Stumbaugh said. “The Dolphins are still here … just run differently.”
And they’re not expected to go anywhere as they enter their third season as a strong, viable, functioning parent-run organization committed to the program’s long-term success.
And, Gold Rush Aquatics looks toward the future with hopes to oversee multiple aquatic events. Once it can secure a permanent home-site pool, plans include starting a water polo program, dive facilities, hyro-therapy and year-round lap swimming for the elderly.
Just like today’s Independence Day reflects time-tested values, beliefs and events, so do the Dry Diggins Dolphins.