In early August, before Colonels head swimming coach Matthias McManus even saw his fall 2022 swim team in the pool, team captain Anthony Melick, a senior from Overland Park, Kansas, reached out to tell him this season was going to be different.
A couple of newcomers from Brazil — sophomore Cadet Tiago Ruas Deluca and junior Cadet Paulo Pereira De Abreu Donnabella — were fast, he learned from Melick.
“I told him we would see when we got to the water,” says McManus, a 15-plus-year veteran swim coach who has been with the Colonels for the past four years.
When he did see them in action, he says he knew the team might have something special this year.
“If you have four really good swimmers, you have a strong relay team – and all kinds of things can happen,” McManus says.
The Colonels relay team — consisting of Cadets Malachi Imrie (a sophomore from Wildwood, Missouri), Melick, Ruas Deluca and Pereira De Abreu Donnabella and accompanied by alternate Benjamin Hyunh, a senior from Overland Park, Kansas — qualified for state competition. In addition, Melick, Ruas Deluca and Pereira De Abreu Donnabella qualified for individual state meets. Cadet Brayden Phelps, a junior from East Peoria, Illinois, was part of the qualifying relay team but missed the state competition due to a death in the family.
“This is a great group of boys,” McManus says. “They came to the season with the attitude that if you try hard, good things happen.”
The cadets took that “work hard” attitude into tough state competition November 11 and 12 in St. Peters, Missouri. Overall, the Colonels swim team’s final standing for the season was 21 out of 80 Class 1 teams in the state.
“Just to make it to the prelims was an honor,” McManus says about qualifying for state. “To make it to the finals, that was icing on the cake.”
According to MMA President Brigadier General Richard V. Geraci, USA (Ret), McManus and assistant coaches Tori Webber and Abby Biggers have been outstanding in rebuilding the Colonels swim program, which returned to MMA in 2018 after hiatus of six years.
“The key was to find the right coaches and assistant coaches with the expertise and leadership to build a competitive team and who truly care about our cadets,” Geraci says about the swim program’s resurgence at MMA. “I can't say enough about the positive impact our coaches have had on the cadets, both in and outside our swimming program. Furthermore, they have guided some of our best cadet leaders and team captains, such as Anthony Melick and our other state qualifiers — Cadets Ruas Deluca, Pereira De Abreu Donnabella, Imrie and Phelps — to reach beyond what they believed they were capable of and achieve even greater results.”
Ruas Deluca finished fourth in the 500-yard freestyle and the 100-yard backstroke to be among the top eight to win a state medal, capping a historic weekend for MMA swimming that saw Colonels swim in five events — the first competition MMA ever has seen at state according to the knowledge of head coach Matthias McManus and athletic director Brian Meny.
On Friday, November 11, Ruas Deluca qualified for the 500-freestyle finals with the third-fastest preliminary time of 4:43.51. He swam to a time of 4:45.84 on Saturday (first place went to Kearney freshman Whitaker Steward who finished at 4:34.41).
“I went into it thinking — do my best,” says Ruas Deluca who admits that the 500 freestyle is not one of his best swimming events.
With McManus blowing his whistle to set Ruas Deluca’s pace for each lap and reinforcing that today was going to be his best, the swimmer finished the 500-freestyle state final with a time 24 seconds faster than his previous personal record for that event.
In the 100-backstroke preliminary meet on Friday, Ruas Deluca qualified for the finals by finishing with the fifth-fastest time of 52.53. Melick, also a state qualifier in the event, missed qualification with a 29th-place time of 59.00. Ruas Deluca shaved about a second off his time in the finals at 51.97, beating out Pembroke Hill’s Nicholas Frank at 51.98 and finishing behind state championship time of 50.48 accomplished by Graham Zucker from Clayton.
Cadet Pereira de Abreu Donabella qualified for the 100-yard breaststroke consolation finals on Friday and in finished 13th in the state with a time of 1:01.84.
Competing in the 200-yard medley relay, Pereira de Abreu Donabella, Ruas Deluca, Melick and Imrie missed qualifying for the consolation finals by less than a second, finishing in 18th place. Despite just missing a trip to the finals, the relay team set a new school-record time of 1:44.23.
Work Hard, Have Fun
According to Melick, having experienced new swimmers on the team this year was a good motivator.
“It was really exciting,” he says. “It was good to have them here to help me push myself.”
Nationally competitive swimmers in their home country, Pereira de Abreu Donabella and Ruas Deluca say that the state competition in Missouri was tough.
“We know we have a good position competing in Brazil,” says Ruas Deluca. “Here, we have to fight for position.”
“For state, I treated it like national competition in Brazil – the level is the same,” Pereira de Abreu Donabella says.
Cadet Paulo Pereira De Abreu Donnabella and Cadet Tiago Ruas Deluca
The two swimmers say they came to MMA to improve their English and joined the swim team without expectations, not knowing the caliber of the other swimmers.
“In Brazil, we train hard,” Ruas Deluca says. “But swimming competitively is not as much fun as here. I still do my job and it’s still competitive, but here, we get to know each other on the team.”
“It’s more about team,” Melick says about the Colonels swim program.
“All three of us have been on competitive (club) teams. When you swim on competitive teams, it’s about train, compete, leave and get ready for the next training session – it’s more about yourself,” Melick says. “High school at MMA is more of a fun environment. Here, we get to know the people a little more and we are hanging out all the time. It’s a little closer and a lot more fun.”
Secret to Success
“You have to know how to motivate someone to do something that they think they can’t do,” McManus says about how he coaches his swimmers.
He credits the MMA’s state-qualifying swimmers for their dedication to practicing and honing their techniques to make it to the state level of competition, and he points to Melick’s strong role as captain as a contributing factor to the team’s success.
“He knows how to be a leader,” McManus says.
Overall, the swimmers were willing to listen, pay attention and fix mistakes, he adds, regarding how they achieved excellence.
The swimmers say they are very grateful to the MMA athletic staff — Coach McMcManus, Coach Tori Webber, Coach Abby Biggers and Athletic Director Brian Meny — for their support and expertise.
“I appreciate all they gave to us – the training, the competition, the opportunities,” Pereira de Abreu Donabella says.
“They’ve all done a great job, and they are a big reason why there has been so much improvement in the past four years of the Colonels swim program,” Melick says.
According to McManus, the synergy of the coaches made a significant positive impact on the success of the team and the ability to engage swimmers at all levels on the team. McManus focused on the advancing the techniques and times for the top-level swimmers, while Webber and Biggers worked with the rest of the swimmers and divers.
McManus strategically works to engage as many swimmers as he can in competition, which he says adds to the level of success the team is able to achieve. “We want swimmers to participate. They may not all be the fastest, but there are other aspects they can bring to the team,” he says.
McManus will continue to work with the Colonels top swimmers in the off-season and plans to engage them in YMCA USA competition.
Photos by Cadet Ethan Tincknell-Hersh '23