Friends, family and fun: Vergennes swim team always a community fixture

VERGENNES — A crowded pool deck was buzzing with swimmers young and old, families and friends as the Vergennes Champs took down the St. Albans Sharks in a July 12 Champlain Valley Swim League Meet.
And for this fun-oriented team, that’s nothing out of the ordinary.
“We come together as a family,” said Addie Brooks, 14. “It starts at the first practice, where we play a lot of games and do a lot of team bonding.”
Brooks has been swimming for the past eight years and continues to come back every summer with her two little sisters, Ellie, 6 and Olivia, 12.
“I support them, you can probably hear me, I like to yell,” she said. “I cheer for Ellie when she’s swimming. She gets out and says, ‘Addie, I can hear you when I’m in the pool, why are you so loud!’”
The Brooks girls are only one of many families swimming together and cheering each other on.
Bill Clark and his wife Melanie, of Ferrisburgh, have four kids of their own on the team, plus two nephews and a niece.
Bill Clark moved to the area for his senior year of high school and immediately joined the winter swim team after years of swimming in Connecticut. At Vergennes Union High School he met Melanie, who grew up in Vergennes with her twin sister, Melissa Muzzy. All have returned to raise their own families.
The swimming Clarks now range from 5, Casey, to 12, Adam. Between these two are Will, 7 and Acadia, 10. Their cousins, Jarret Muzzy, 13; Nate Muzzy, 11; and Reese Muzzy, 5, are also part of the family dynasty.
“I like the fact that all of my kids, even though they’re spread out, are on the same team,” said Bill Clark. “They’re cheering for each other and we can do this as a family. Every other sport, they’re on different teams because of their ages. But here, they’re on the same team. There’s something really special about that.”
Even the two youngest, Casey Clark and Reese Muzzy — both in their first year on the team — support each other in their races.
“Look what she got!” exclaimed Casey as she pointed to her cousins’ first-place heat ribbon.
“Plus she got a personal best like me,” she added with a grin.
While Casey and Reese represent a growing number of new swimmers, Max Ratti-Bicknell and his family prove that it pays off to stick around.
Ratti-Bicknell, 17, has been on the team for 10 years. His father, Tim Bicknell, has been cheering for the Champs as a swimmer and now a parent since its inaugural year.
“As soon as the pool opened, there was a swim team,” said Bicknell, who joined the team with his four siblings when local businessman and lawyer, Sam Fishman, decided to build the pool.
Tim Bicknell’s younger brother, Peter Bicknell, now coaches for the Addison Otters, the area’s winter swim team. He comes back to the meets to check in with some of his winter swimmers over the summer.
“I’m here for the athletes,” he said.
Max Ratti-Bicknell is one of the oldest Champs and is an obvious leader for the younger swimmers. He knows the ropes and is always willing to give some advice.
“I remember flashbacks when I was a kid, looking up to the older kids and thinking wow, I want to be just like them,” he said. “And now I’m one of the older kids. It’s kind of weird seeing the little kids run up to me screaming, ‘Max I just finished my race.’ I remember how they felt. It brings everything full circle.”
Ratti-Bicknell is part of a growing team of more than 100 swimmers. While some kids also swim on winter leagues, for most it’s an opportunity to hang out with family and friends during the summer in a relaxed environment.
“I think its especially fun to swim in a summer league,” said Bill Clark. “It’s still competitive but there’s more of a focus on fun and there’s more of a casual environment. This is a weeknight and it feels like a Saturday.”
Head coach Jen Bechtold has led the team for the past four years and makes sure the team is always focused on having fun together.
“It’s definitely more about having fun than it is about the competition,” she said. “It’s more about being goofy and dancing, we do a lot of dancing and singing.”
Josh Cook, 20, and Andie Blaser, 22, are Bechtold’s two assistant coaches this summer. The trio lead the early morning practices together, 7 to 8 a.m. for swimmers 11 and up, and 8 to 9 a.m. for swimmers 10 and under.
For most, it’s the early-morning wake up call that deters them from the sport. But according to Ratti-Bicknell, it only takes two weeks to understand the team, sport and dedication.
“Just stick with it,” he said. “Early morning practices, when the water is freezing cold, discourage just about everybody. But if you stick it out for at least two weeks, the water definitely starts to warm up. It gets 100 times better.”

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