POWHATAN – It wasn’t about how their swims went.
Jennifer Kantanen back then told her Clarksville YMCA swimmers that, when they got out of the water after races, she wanted to see smiles on their faces.
“Because you know why? You got there, you did it, you made it happen,” Kantanen would tell them. And then, where they were at swim meets, her philosophy was: “When you get nervous on the block, there’s no reason to be nervous. You’ve already put the work in…you’ve done all your work at the practices. This is where you get to go and show off and have fun!
“And that’s what a swim meet’s about,” Kantanen said. “It’s not about competition/‘Oh my gosh I need to beat that person!’ It’s about going in there, taking everything you’ve learned, applying it and having a good time while doing it, and just doing your best and having pride in doing your best.”
With that approach, Kantanen is now leading the Powhatan YMCA swim team – which began its season Monday, Sept. 9 – as the new head swim coach.
“I love the small-town feeling; everyone is super friendly,” said Kantanen, who has lived in Powhatan for a year. “I definitely feel like there is a sense of southern hospitality within the community.”
That’s especially something she’s experienced at the YMCA’s.
“For me, being someone that’s moved around, the Y has been a place that I’ve always known that I can go to and connect and make friends and feel at home.”
Kantanen said she loves doing something for the community, and the YMCA swim team, she pointed out, offers the best of two worlds: “you can have a competitive spirit…but it’s also just about being a community and inclusion – everyone’s welcome at all different ability levels.”
Kantanen grew up in San Diego, swimming competitively since she was little. She competed both in swimming and in water polo, and eventually she got into open water swimming. She’s currently an open-water Ultra Marathon Swimmer, meaning she’s competed in swims matching or exceeding 6 miles in length. Her longest swim was the 12.5 mile swim around the island of Key West, Florida, and among the numerous triathlons, aquathlons and open-water swim races she’s competed in, the Key West race ranks among her two favorites, along with the 5-mile swim she took on at South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor.
She’s called a vast range of communities her home. She, her husband Dennis, who is a U.S. Army Officer, and their family have moved to different duty stations across the United States. On the coaching side, she started off as a USA Swimming Assistant Coach for Thunderbolt Aquatics in Kentucky; her kids were on the team, she herself had a past background with swimming and she had an enthusiasm for swimming. From there, Kantanen started doing more training and learning on the coaching side of the sport, and she was eventually able to take the skills she developed to the head coaching position of The Clarksville YMCA Swim Team in Tennessee.
“That’s when I really learned about my passion in swimming,” she said. “I had a lot of fun connecting with the kids.”
She took the helm of a Barracudas team she described as having less than 10 kids to start out; under her leadership, the team not only swelled to a 60-swimmer program, but it also went on to place first at The YMCA of Middle Tennessee Championships three seasons in a row.
There’s a poetic parallel to the team that Kantanen is now leading, as the Powhatan YMCA team – also the Barracudas – grew from 22 swimmers to 87 in less than three years under the coaching of 21-year-old Jessie Hevener, who after the conclusion of the summer championship position bade farewell to her post and to the team to pursue dual degrees in Chemistry and Exercise Science and a fall internship to complete her Exercise Science degree at VCU.
Kantanen said she’s not hoping to come in, change, do or be better, or any of those different things; she’s just hoping to ensure that the Powhatan Barracudas, who have blossomed under beloved Coach Hevener’s leadership, continue to flourish with the help of the skill set that Kantanen looks to bring to the program.
Kantanen is a Level II U.S. Masters Swim Coach, an American Swimming Coaches Association Certified International Master Swim Coach and a U.S. Masters Certified Stroke Clinician. She’s been trained with USA Swimming to work with children who face cognitive and physical limitations, and she’s also trained adults in a variety of abilities and towards a range of goals, from helping individuals strive to overcome their fear of water to working with championship-level Ironman Triathletes.
In the past Kantanen was really active with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and was also a coach for Girls on the Run, a nonprofit organization that combines training girls ages 8 to 13 to complete a 5K running event with building their self-esteem.
“It’s where I kind of started to really connect with kids – and realizing how important it is to build up their self-esteem,” Kantanen said. “I found working for the Y gave me the opportunity to do swimming, but also mentor and coach and build up self-esteem, so I got to combine all that together.”
In reflecting on how the Clarksville YMCA swim team “went from a team that nobody of” to a team that won championships three years in a row, Kantanen believes that it was a matter of just letting the kids know that they are capable.
“You give them the skills,” she said, “and then you encourage them to just do the best they can…to feel great about themselves.”
Swimming competitively, Kantanen believes, provides developing children an opportunity to test their individual abilities and achieve personal wins throughout the season.
“It doesn’t matter if it is taking first in a heat, a drop in their time by mere seconds or finally doing their first flip turn – they are all wins,” Kantanen said. “The bonus is doing this within a supportive team environment.”
She’s really big on the team members, younger and older, partnering up together and encouraging one another – and she’s looking forward to watching the kids on the side deck cheer their teammates on.