By Joseph Cicchino - Assistant Director of Communications and Marketing
The success of the Germantown Academy swimming and diving program has been hard to match during the past two years. The boys team went 12-0 in dual meets, won two Inter-Ac League titles, placed second and third at Easterns Scholastic Swimming & Diving Championships, and won the Easterns Combined Team Title in 2022. In addition, they have had 13 All-League selections and Jack Maketa '22 and Landon D’Ariano '24 each won league MVP.
The girls have a 14-0 mark in dual meets over the last two seasons, with two Inter-Ac titles, two Easterns titles, and a Combined Team Title at Easterns. The team has had 18 All-League selections and Taylor Grimley '24 was named league MVP in 2023. During the 2022-23 season, the GA girls touched first in 78 of 84 races, including exhibitions, and went 1:32.66 in the 200 Freestyle Relay at Easterns, a second and a half shy of breaking the National Prep record.
The 26-0 mark between the programs in that time is not only a product of the work put in by Head Coach Jeff Thompson, his staff, and the student-athletes, but also credit to the school, according to Thompson.
“This success is a product of Jim Fenerty and Jim Connor’s vision; it just took some time,” Thompson said. “This year and last year didn’t happen without the previous six years building into it. It’s a collection of great kids; it’s providing opportunities for them to push themselves; it’s surrounding them with great coaches; and it’s the teachers in the classrooms. It’s not just one thing and it didn’t just happen last year; it’s happened over time.”
After he arrived from Indiana in 2015, Thompson said the GA program “went through a lot of change over those first nine months.” After everyone figured out where they wanted to be, his first hires included Matt Cox '04 as the Head Age Group Coach and Mike Koziol as the Assistant Aquatics Director. He also brought in Tom Henninger '07 – one of the last All-American divers at GA -- to lead the dive team, which at the time had only one member, sophomore Alaina Schumann '17.
“I promised Alaina that I’d have a diving coach for her before her junior year,” Thompson said. “There was a diving program in Indiana called RipFest, and the first full summer that we were here, we called the director, which unbeknownst to us, was where Tommy was working, to see if he had some names and the director said he had a guy.”
“I started coaching in Indiana with John Wingfield, and he taught me the ins and outs of diving – the technical parts, workouts, and how to run a program,” Henninger said. “I was on the pool deck in Indiana when Jeff called and asked if he knew anyone interested in coaching a diving program. I was standing right next to John on the deck when he said, ‘There’s some big swimming program near Philadelphia that needs a diving coach, are you interested?’ And I thought, ‘what a small world!’”
JJ Freeman '23, one of three senior captains for the GA boys last season, has been around the program for about as long as anyone. Swimming as a Middle School student for GA and with the Germantown Academy Aquatic Club (GAAC), he watched the teams ascend. While the day-to-day routines have remained the same, Freeman said that he has noticed an increase in the intensity, chemistry, and depth of the team.
“I’m fortunate to have witnessed that flip,” Freeman said. “There was a great group of high school guys when I was in Middle School that I looked up to and I thought they were fast -- Jack Lafond '19 and Jake Rabbiner '19, and Sean Keenan '19 -- so training with them was special. But certainly, the last two years, guys like Landon and Brandon [Fleck '25], they’ve added a lot of depth to our team and now we’re starting to win more.”
The senior added that the group is more diligent getting into the pool for practice, and that Thompson has been creative at practice with teaching fundamentals. The team has new ‘toys’ like DragSox, which Freeman said thinks is creating a shift, as well as spending a lot of time on underwaters, something that Grimley also mentioned. She explained that Thompson has been trying to keep the team focused on their underwater work, since it is something that the sport is emphasizing, but something else also stands out.
“Our program winning the past two years has a lot to do with the culture we are creating at GA,” Grimley said. “We’re all hard-workers; we all want to get better. It’s expected that you’re trying your hardest. Everyone is always trying to lift each other up.”
The work has obviously translated to the pool as well, as the Patriots hardly lost a race last season. Grimley said that the girls team knew that they would be successful this season, thanks to a strong core of swimmers. Freeman added that he thinks both teams will continue to have success for years to come.
However, it is not only the swimmers who are experiencing the biggest flip in results at GA; that title belongs to the divers. While the building blocks were put into place since Henninger returned to GA in 2015, things came to a head this past season at Easterns when Libby Brewer '25 became the first female diver in Germantown Academy history to take the top spot. Laurel DePolo '25 took second as four GA divers earned 97 points on the girls side, and Brendan Hodgens '24 and Asher Sasson '23 took second and fifth on the boys side to earn 53 points. The combined 150 points between the diving groups was the most ever under Henninger.
But the build took time. During several years, swimmers were put onto the boards just so the Patriots could compete. After hitting a low of just 18 points between two divers at Easterns in 2018, things started looking up. The Patriots tallied 33 points the next year between two divers, and 49 between three the year after. In 2020, Sasson became the first male diver to crack the top-20 at Easterns under Henninger. After a virtual Easterns competition in 2021, GA gave everyone a taste of what was to come by placing three boys and two girls in the top-10 and combining for 135 points in 2022. Henninger said that the slow and steady approach to the development of divers has been the key.
“The big thing, the most important part of the stuff we were doing for the first three years, were clinics,” Henninger said. “We did them once a month, just letting people know we had an option for diving. We just wanted a grassroots approach – beginners, people who are new to diving and introducing them to the sport. We ran clinics for three years, one clinic a month, rotating kids in and we got a following. In 2016, we started Germantown Academy Dive Club (GADC) and we’ve been getting beginner divers from all over the Philadelphia area.”
Henninger added that most of the divers started in the GADC Juniors program, and that several, once they joined the club, started to get interested in the school, as was the case for Hodgens. He said he wanted to try diving in the winter, so his father found the club, which was at the time very small.
“The team seemed very relaxed so that was something I liked about it,” Hodgens commented. “I’ve enjoyed watching the team grow and it has been great becoming a leader on the team. It’s really cool that we’re this next generation -- with swimming and diving -- and have such a strong team that’s continuing to grow.”
Since then, the junior has developed into one of the Patriots’ top divers, and one that Henninger would love to have break his personal 11-dive record set in 2007. Henninger added that he would still feel like it’s partially his record since he was the coach, but “it’s time for it to go!”
Brewer has been at Germantown Academy since her Child Care Center days but dove for her hometown club where Henninger used to coach. Once she heard he was opening a club at GA, she switched over. Through working with Henninger, Brewer became the first female diver in school history to place first at Easterns.
“He’s a really good coach and over the years has learned to work with us very strategically,” Brewer said. “He sets up the plan for the year and we go through the training process for every month, and then every week of that month. I think planning that out and getting to know each diver and what they need help on, that helps a lot.”
Henninger, who credits Thompson for the group’s success, says that Thompson has given him full reign of the diving program and has supported him each step of the way. Thompson, however, sees things differently, saying that the results are all due to Henninger.
“I don’t know anything about diving,” Thompson said. “Tommy doesn’t give himself enough credit. He’s done a heck of a job in a short amount of time. As far as the tools that he needed to build his vision with the diving program, he always comes to me, and I try to lead with ‘yes’ and figure out a way to pay for it later. I’ve done what I can, but it’s all been him.”
Patience has truly been a virtue for the GA swimming and diving program. While pleased with where the teams are, Thompson knows how hard it is for the kids who put in the sweat equity to make the program better after they were gone.
“Change is hard, and people don’t like change,” Thompson said. “We just had to be patient and find student-athletes and coaches who shared a similar vision. It took time, but when you find one good person, then you get two, and then it multiplies - you have a program full of great kids and parents where great things happen. I am extremely proud of the success our students have had and the impact that we’ve had as a staff. I can’t wait until next year!”