Swim captains have Flames focused on top-3 finish at nationals
At the end of the spring semester, soon after leading Liberty University’s men’s swim team to a second-place finish at the Collegiate Club Swimming (CCS) virtual national championships, Flames junior exercise science majors Matthew Davidson and Carter Helsby were selected by their teammates as co-captains for the 2021-22 season.
To prepare for the new leadership responsibilities, they signed up to coach Lynchburg-area youth swim teams over the summer, with Davidson guiding the Wildwood Stingrays — formerly led by Flames Head Coach Heath Grishaw — and Helsby earning Lynchburg Aquatic League Coach of the Year honors with the Rainbow Forest Marlins.
“This was the first year I’ve ever coached, and it was a blessing to be hired as a head coach this year and to take over that role,” said Helsby, a missionary kid who grew up in Tanzania and whose family is now serving in Turkey. “They really trusted me in coaching their kids… and that gave me a lot of good experience.”
Davidson, a graduate of Jefferson Forest High School (JFHS) in nearby Forest, Va., coached Wildwood swimmers against freshmen Flames recruits Ryan Learn from JFHS and Joshua Powell from Liberty Christian Academy (LCA, Grishaw’s alma mater) when they competed against the Forest Area Swim Team (FAST) this summer.
“I didn’t get to coach any of these local (recruits), but the team I coached got to race against my future and now current teammates, which was a lot of fun,” Davidson said.
Grishaw was happy to see his two captains take the opportunity to serve through the summer league.
“Being able to give back to the community and help young kids perfect their craft in swimming is something that I’m definitely all about and that’s something that I highly encourage,” he said. “It’s a great place to start, because you can always pour back into athletes that are younger.”
He believes the experience prepared them well to captain a team with at least 11 freshmen newcomers.
“I have 100 percent faith that they are going to carry the culture that we need to be successful,” Grishaw said.
After posting four first-place finishes in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle and 100 and 200 backstroke at the CCS nationals, Davidson narrowly missed an opportunity to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 50- and 100-meter free and 100 back at the Speedo Sectional Championship, a long-course meet held in Richmond, Va., in May.
“I’ve been able to move past that now,” he said. “I decided to kind of step back this summer and take a little bit of a mental break because … I kind of needed a little reset, and now I’m really ready for this season to come.”
Helsby, who swims the 200-, 100-, and 50-yard breaststroke, as well as the 100 butterfly and the 200 Individual Medley (IM), also competed at the Richmond race and continued to train at the Liberty Natatorium throughout the summer months when he wasn’t coaching or working a second job.
Both are back in full practice mode, and have the Flames fired up for the Sept. 24 opener against the University of Lynchburg at the Liberty Natatorium, where they will compete alongside Liberty’s and Lynchburg’s NCAA Division I and Division III women’s teams, respectively.
“I’m extremely excited for this season,” Davidson said, projecting another top-three finish at nationals this spring. “As a team, I think we have an extremely good chance of winning the whole thing, but we’re making those (freshmen) very aware of what it takes to actually accomplish that goal. There will be a lot more competition since (nationals) will be held in-person again, but with the guys we’ve brought in and the guys we’ve kept, I think we’re going to do really well.”
For the first week of school, Davidson and Helsby led two optional practice sessions and were pleasantly surprised by the turnout.
“We had so many guys coming to both days of practices before we even started the season,” Davidson said. “We got to know a lot of the freshmen, which I really think is going to help us be really tight-knit at the beginning of the season and we can build off that once we start.”
Helsby is determined to continue to make personal strides in the pool while encouraging his teammates to follow suit. Last season, he trimmed his personal-record time of 1 minute, 7 seconds in the 100-yard breaststroke to 59 seconds, also cutting his 200 breast PR time from 2:24 to 2:09.
“(Helsby) is one of those diamonds in the rough,” Grishaw said. “He is someone that is so driven to be the best that he can in everything, and that applies to his swimming..”
Growing up in Tanzania, Helsby trained with his dad to be a runner and ran his first half-marathon at age 11 before transitioning to swimming at his international school as a freshman in 2016.
“I just fell in love with it and wanted to swim in college, so that’s why I’m here,” he said. “My older brother swam for a year and I have three younger sisters and a younger brother and they all swim, too.”
Helsby said running gave him a good aerobic base for swimming, allowing him to catch up to his peers in the sport.
“I hadn’t swum competitively, but I picked it up pretty quickly, the basics and I’m still fine-tuning everything,” he said. “For my whole life, I’ll still be fine-tuning my stroke. It’s a long process.”
Helsby said growing up in East Africa gave him a much different perspective on the world.
“It was great to live there, really expanding my view of the world and the people around me,” he said. “That’s one thing for the team we’re also trying to push for, just helping the guys see that this is bigger than them and we swim for something bigger. We swim for the Lord, God, ultimately, no matter how we place at nationals.”
He pointed to the team’s designated spiritual leaders this season, junior Wade Lawrence and sophomore Jordan Stackpole, as being just as important as the team’s captains.
“They are really great guys and will really help grow the team spiritually,” he said.
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video by Hayden Robertson/Club Sports Video & Media Assistant
Davidson (adjusting goggles) oversees practice at the Liberty Natatorium with freshmen Trent Kolter (facing) from Louisville, Ky., and fellow Jefferson Forest (Va.) graduates Ryan Learn and Sam Quintana (right).