MIDLOTHIAN – On that momentous Monday in the bustling SwimRVA facility, if you wanted to pick Jessie Hevener out of the crowds of competitors, coaches and officials who surrounded the competition pool during the Richmond Metro Aquatic League (RMAL) Summer Champs meet, all you had to do was look to see if there was a Powhatan YMCA Barracudas swimmer behind the block.
She could be spotted standing right beside that swimmer, talking to him or her before the upcoming swim and then giving that young competitor a high-five.
After the starting buzzer sounded and water splashed about as the swimmers tore down the lanes in pursuit of the event’s fastest time, Hevener could be seen on the other end of the pool, cheering on her swimmer as he or she reached the 25-yard mark.
That encouragement – that focus on building up a swimmer’s confidence – has been a core tenet of Hevener’s coaching philosophy.
“We’re really trying to make sure every kid feels important, whether they’re first or last,” Hevener said, “because we realize the kids who are last now might be first in a couple years. So we just keep telling them: no matter where they are, we’re happy to have them, and keep encouraging them to come back.”
They’ve not only been coming back.
Since Hevener became the Powhatan YMCA Barracudas’ head coach in November 2016, her team has swelled from a 22-swimmer group with talent to an 87-strong program.
No matter the age or level of experience, that’s a notch in any coach’s belt.
Hevener can claim that achievement at just 21 years of age.
“It’s been really special for me,” she said of holding that kind of leadership position at this young point of her life. “I’ve loved working with Powhatan – the families are definitely some of the best I have met. I love the kids, they listen really well and the parents are just always supportive…”
After she took the helm of Powhatan YMCA’s team, her 22 swimmers brought their friends out to swim, parents reached out to other parents, Powhatan YMCA Aquatics director Matt Chocklett reached out to new families going to the Y and as the Barracudas grew, so did the coaching staff. After Hevener started out as the only coach, Isabella Cerullo and Thomas Sanchez have also been able to work with her as coaches this summer. They both have swimming backgrounds themselves, they’re “really good at working with kids” and they’re “both super awesome” according to Hevener.
After Powhatan partnered with Midlothian the past two summers, the Barracudas this year were able to break out on their own and compete in the RMAL C Division.
“Midlothian, it was great being combined with them,” Hevener said. “But we really enjoyed being our own team and having our own identity.”
The Barracudas on Monday were able to feature 40 swimmers in the Summer Champs events, with 16 competing in the 10 & under session and 24 swimming in the 11 & older session.
“To be able to bring 40 kids to champs is super special,” Hevener said while also emphasizing: “We’re happy to have any kid here even if they don’t place; we just want them to be able to be part of the team and have this experience.”
The coaches also incorporate a little bit of fun into the program, from holding biggest splash competitions to doing team-bond activities outside of the pool like making posters for the Summer Champs meet.
The future is bright for Hevener, and it’s one that she’s looking to secure. Although she wants to be a fulltime swim team coach, her backup plan is to teach high school chemistry and coach high school swimming. She’s therefore attending VCU and working towards dual degrees in Chemistry and Exercise Science while gearing up for a fall internship to complete her Exercise Science degree.
But with the time needed to focus on her studies, Hevener, with the completion of the summer championship season, is leaving her head coaching position and bidding farewell to her beloved Barracudas, at least for now.
“It’s really hard because the kids and the families here are the best,” Hevener said. “I’m definitely going to miss them – hopefully maybe someday I’ll get to come back and coach them, and I really just try to encourage them that, it’s not goodbye forever – it’s just goodbye for now.”
The kids in Powhatan are “super inspiring” to Hevener, and they’re among the best kids she knows. They definitely have a lot of team spirit, as evidenced by the Most Spirited Award that the 10 & under swimmers won at the Summer Champs Meet.
“I just love how they never give up,” she said, noting how they’ve seen some of their kids go from not being able to swim to being among the best swimmers on the team.
“I just love their dedication and hard work,” she said. And the parents, she added, are amazing – she’s seen parent volunteers come to meets this summer even when it was around 100 degrees outside and their children were injured and unable to compete.
“It just speaks so much about the kind of people Powhatan has.”