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La Mirada Armada swim coach Rick Shipherd driven to find ‘the one’ — an Olympic star

La Mirada Armada swimmer Anthony Ramirez waits to exit the pool as another swimmer enters during the Kevin Perry Invitational at Splash! Aquatics Complex in La Mirada on Friday, November 5, 2021.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Chlorine and caffeine are the necessary ingredients this morning.

Parents hunt for coffee on the pool deck while kids unwrap themselves from blankets to plunge into heated pools. The sun won’t rise for another two hours, but the area’s top swimmers are wide awake for one of the biggest swim meets in Southern California.

“Yesterday was special,” a white-haired coach said to a group of teenagers as they contorted their arms for a pre-meet stretch routine.

Coach Rick Shipherd leads a workout with swimmers of La Mirada Armada, a year-round swim club, on a cold and rainy day at Splash! Aquatics Complex.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Rick Shipherd’s swimmers recorded nine personal bests on the first day of competition at the Kevin Perry Invitational. More times fell throughout the November weekend.

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A 16-year-old boy reached a USA Swimming time standard that will help him break away from the recruiting pack. A high school senior returned to competition after taking several months off and still broke his personal records. A girl blazed to the fastest 500-yard freestyle for a 13-year-old in more than 40 years.

The performances should have been the perfect early birthday for Shipherd. Instead, the longtime swim coach was scared. Five months remained until he wanted them reaching their peaks.

Two days after his team began its season at the Kevin Perry Invitational, Shipherd turned 68. The coach at La Mirada Armada, a year-round swim club, would spend this birthday like many before it: finding ways to help young swimmers reach their goals.

He wakes up before dawn to do it, arriving at the Splash! Aquatics Complex in La Mirada for 7 a.m. training sessions and even earlier for meets that begin with 6 a.m. warm-ups. He stays late for evening sessions that stretch on past sunset.

Coach Rick Shipherd, top, leads a workout with swimmers of La Mirada Armada, a year-round swim club, including Sabrina Benanni and Taylor Ault, from bottom left.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

The early mornings and long hours started to wear on Shipherd 10 years ago. Sitting in his office on the afternoon of his birthday, he pondered why he’s still doing it. His current crop of teenagers gathering on the pool deck could hold the answer as to why coaches like him come back for more.

“They know the next one might be The One,” he said.

Shipherd coaches the national-level swimmers at La Mirada Armada, a small group of 13-to-17-year-old prospects who compete against local powers like Mission Viejo and Irvine’s Novaquatics. His nearly five-decade coaching career includes stops from San Diego to El Monte and has produced two Olympians, a handful of Olympic trials swimmers and college standouts at powerhouses like Florida and Stanford.

Not all of them walked into his office with natural talent. Real talent — the kind that Olympic gold medalists are simply born with — is rare. No one in his current group has it, he says bluntly.

But they have the next best thing.

La Mirada Armada swimmers Clemence Choy, Chantee Nguyen, and Kayla Han, from left, take turns lifting weights at a UFC Gym in La Mirada.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

“Mental fitness is a bigger determinant of success than physical fitness,” Shipherd said.

Training from eight to 10 times a week for up to three hours a session, Shipherd’s swimmers work with the longtime coach to develop the mental toughness that can help them compete in the pool. Shipherd’s training focuses on the 400 individual medley and the 800 freestyle, events that focus on true grit instead of raw talent.

In distance swimming, “the only thing that holds you back is your own toughness,” Shipherd said.

Few were as tough as Taylor Ault. The two-time All-American at Florida who finished 18th at the Olympic trials last year is the best female swimmer in La Mirada Armada’s history, by Shipherd’s estimation.

Swimmers with La Mirada Armada, a year-round swim club, including Taylor Ault and Sabrina Benanni, from right, do stretching exercises under the direction of Olga Molotilova, a synchronized swimming coach.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Ault was the one who kept Shipherd coming back 10 years ago. She was a short, blonde 12-year-old. He was already feeling the fatigue of two-a-day workouts and long weekend meets and usually didn’t take swimmers that young.

But Ault was fast and getting even faster. And when she got onto the starting block, she was just plain mean in the best possible way.

“The toughest kid I’ve ever coached, mentally,” Shipherd said.

Ault, who‘s now 22 and recently retired to prepare for medical school, attributes that mental fortitude to Shipherd’s distance-based training sets. The team swims about 8,000 meters a practice, following what Ault called an “old-school” training regimen.

Sessions left Ault’s face bright red, lungs burning and arms throbbing. Her teammates who shared her goals and her coaches who pushed her kept her coming back.

“[Shipherd] always said, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re the fastest person in the pool or the slowest person in the pool,’” Ault said. “‘You finished the set.’”

The survival mentality is most important during the team’s annual “New Year’s Insanity” workout. This year, the Jan. 2 session lasted almost six hours with 22,000 meters on the menu.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

The first three hours — which include two 3,000-meter swims and four 1,500-meter sets — are mandatory. The true test is in the second half’s six 800-meters broken up by 100s and eight 400 individual medleys. Swimmers have the choice to continue through the final three hours.

On this day, times don’t matter, only mental toughness.

That quality is what Sabrina Bennani needed when she joined Shipherd’s group last May. The 17-year-old started training at Armada’s sister program in Covina in March 2020, moving from her previous club. She was looking for something to help her break through a frustrating plateau.

The breaststroke specialist worked hard at practice at her old club, but it just felt like she was going through the motions. Teammates tore each other down in practice. The negativity showed in her racing, where she commonly fell apart mentally down the final stretch.

Bennani hadn’t made significant progress in short-course races for two years, including the season-opening Kevin Perry Invitational, in which familiar mental lapses — especially when she got into top-level finals against elite competition — sank her chances late.

“Physically, I was fine, but like mentally, I just gave up at the end,” Bennani said. “Here, the practices are hard physically and also mentally. I’m trying to train myself, like, ‘OK, this is going to be the last part of the race, you’ve gotta push through, visualize yourself in the last moment in the race.’”

Shipherd and her teammates create an “uplifting” environment that helps Bennani persevere through tough workouts, she said. Laboring through the first half of the New Year’s workout, Bennani asked one of her teammates if they could swim together. The support gave her an extra push during the next 1,500-meter set.

While watching his swimmers pace back and forth in the pool, Shipherd estimated about four of the 11 who started the day would survive the entire workout. In the end, eight lasted until the celebratory group photo.

The objective was to survive the exhausting workout, but one swimmer especially impressed. Kayla Han not only lasted, but she also got faster as the session progressed.

La Mirada Armada swimmers Kayla Han, left, and Sabrina Benanni, right, leave after a workout on a cold and rainy day at Splash! Aquatics Complex.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

The prodigious 13-year-old is Shipherd’s next one.

The Brea native was the youngest swimmer at last year’s Olympic trials, where, just a few days past her birthday, Han made waves with an epic comeback in the 400 individual medley. The clip of her charging back from fourth place in the freestyle leg was the most-watched clip of the U.S. swim trials.

Han called the moment the “skyrocket” of her career. She’s only continued her rise into the swimming stratosphere.

Han finished fourth in the 400-meter individual medley at December’s U.S. Open Championships as one of the youngest competitors in the field and got a personal look at Katie Ledecky in the 1,500 freestyle. The Olympic star touched the wall about a minute before Han’s fifth-place time of 16:43.02. Han chopped her personal best down to 16:37.59 this month.

Shipherd, who has trained Han at Armada for about a year and a half, looks at the young star’s meteoric rise with both astonishment and trepidation. She is one of the most extraordinary examples of mental toughness and conditioning Shipherd has seen. In practice, she is already swimming with, and beating some, male teammates three and four years her senior. There is also no way to know how she will develop physically through her teenage years.

Han is demure on the pool deck, often slipping into the background as teammates joke during breaks, but her shy smile shouldn’t be mistaken for submissiveness. She sent a clear message to her competitors at the Kevin Perry Invitational when she beat 18-year-old Katie Crom, a Michigan-bound, U.S. junior national team member, in the 500-yard freestyle by 1.48 seconds. The effort left other parents raising their eyebrows and saying “wow” as Han nonchalantly pulled herself out of the pool. Han’s time of 4:42.91 was the second fastest for a 13-year-old, trailing only a mark three-time world champion Sippy Woodhead set in 1977.

The meet was an early season highlight for Han, but she is building toward a more challenging stage. In April, Han has the chance to become the youngest U.S. swimmer on a world championship team.

Talks of an Olympic berth in Paris are premature. There are still many peaks and valleys to come during Han’s career; Shipherd is sure of it. But just the thought of what could be brings a twinkle to his eye as he returns to practice every day.


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