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Swim: Local swim club head steps down

Jeff Conwell leaves job with the SCV’s Canyons Aquatics

Posted: October 21, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: October 21, 2012 2:00 a.m.
 

Canyons Aquatics Club has become synonymous with the success of Santa Clarita Valley swimming in the past few years.

Much of the recent prosperity can be credited to the man in charge, Jeff Conwell, who announced Wednesday he would step down as head coach after spending 14 years with the program.

He’s accepting a job as head coach and CEO of Piranha Swim Team out of Palm Springs, Conwell confirmed, and he’ll also be resigning from his position as head coach of swim and dive team at College of the Canyons.

“(Piranhas) offered me one of the few things that Canyons couldn’t, and that was a situation where I’m the CEO of the team,” Conwell said. “I get to control the day-to-day operations.”

Unlike the Piranhas, Canyons is run by a board of directors made up of parents with kids involved in the club.

The Palm Springs club has no parent board members, which Conwell says will provide him with more stability in his position.

“What they offered me was a sense of ownership so I could go there and build it up,” he said. “I have a vested interest in this club.”

Naturally, Conwell’s news was met with surprise by those involved in Canyons swimming, including coaches and more than 600 swimmers, many of whom compete for area high school teams.

“It’s been a rough last couple days because we really didn’t anticipate it, the kids or the coaches,” said Mike Bechtehlo, who was named the interim coach of Canyons Aquatics. “But we know that Jeff stepped away from a good situation in the program that he really helped build up with the help of a couple really involved parents.”

Conwell began with Canyons in 1999 as head age group coach in charge of swimmers 12 and under before taking over as head coach in August 2005.

Before that, Conwell served as assistant swim coach at Cal State Northridge, where he once swam himself. He also coached varsity swim teams at Granada Hills, Louisville and Crespi high schools prior to his stint at Canyons.

During his nearly decade and a half at Canyons, the club nearly tripled the number of members and turned out a long list of elite athletes.

Most notable on the list is Olympic gold medalist and Hart High graduate Anthony Ervin, who swam at Canyons during Conwell’s early years.

But the bulk of the successful names have come through in recent years, including USC swimmer and Hart graduate Jordan Danny, Navy swimmer and West Ranch graduate Riley Mita and John Criste, a Stanford swimmer and Saugus graduate.

This past June, Canyons sent a club-record seven swimmers to the U.S. Olympic Swim Team Trials.

Hart junior Matt Johnson and Saugus sophomore Abbey Weitzeil were among those at the trials. The two of them were named The Signal’s All-Santa Clarita Valley boys and girls swimmers of the year.

“I’ve allowed talent to get to where it needs to be,” Conwell said of his time with Canyons. “I’ve tried to not force kids to swim one particular style. I’ve tried not to force kids to train one specific way.”

He emphasized that he doesn’t anticipate any athletes to follow him to Palm Springs, nor does he wish for it.

“I want to leave this program (Canyons) where kids want to stay because of the program, not because of me,” Conwell said.

Bechtehlo, who has worked alongside Conwell for 13 years as an assistant at Canyons, echoed that thought.

“The work that’s done here is definitely something that’s going to last a while,” Bechtehlo said. “The team has continually grown and gotten better under his supervision.”

At this point, Bechtehlo is unsure whether he’ll throw his hat into the ring to become the new permanent head coach.

Bechtehlo, who is also entering his fifth year as Valencia High’s swim coach, said the club plans to fill the position within the next two months.

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