For more than three decades, Ann Leonard was a teacher and coach for the Ava R-1 School District.
She coached almost everything for the school in neighboring Douglas County.
But never swimming. Not for the school, that is.
However, Leonard now is the swimming coach for a pair of Webster County schools in Marshfield and Seymour.
This fall, she’s coaching the boys’ programs for each school.
From Marshfield, Leonard has eight swimmers.
There’s only one from Seymour, junior Kyran Hepko, yet she noted, “If you’re going to only have one swimmer from Seymour, Kyran’s a very good one to have in the program.”
This winter, she’ll coach the girls’ swimming programs for each school, where there are expectations of higher participation levels.
“In Seymour, we had four girls swim in the summer, and we had seven (girls) come to a recent preseason meeting,” Leonard explained. “From Marshfield, we’re expecting there to be eight girls. So, I’m optimistic about the winter girls’ season that follows the boys’ season ... the outlook is getting better. The numbers are growing.”
Both schools practice in Seymour each day at the local YMCA’s indoor swimming pool.
“It’s such a great facility, something you seldom, if ever, see in a small city like Seymour,” Leonard said. “It’s a huge asset to the community. Looking ahead, I just want to see more students here take advantage of the high-school swimming program that’s been made available to them.”
Recruited to coach
Leonard was recruited to coach swimming for both county schools.
“I thought I was retired,” she said with a smile.
After officially retiring from Ava’s school after more than 30 years of service, Leonard seized the opportunity to return to a profession she loved when it was offered after only a year of retirement.
“(After retirement) I was swimming three times a week in Seymour here at the YMCA pool, training for a triathlon,” she noted. “And that’s how I met Chad and Guy.”
Chad is Chad Watson, CEO of the Ozarks Family YMCA, which includes branches in Cabool, Mountain Grove, Seymour and Willow Springs.
Guy is Guy Gerard, branch director of Seymour’s YMCA.
Conversations with Gerard and Watson were the impetus for Leonard to return to coaching. Marshfield’s swimming program had decided to train in Seymour because of a huge cost savings compared to practicing at the Natatorium in Springfield. And Seymour was looking for a “combined” coach to share with another school — a coach with some swimming knowledge and coaching experience.
Leonard was a perfect fit.
“As a child, I lived in Idaho, where I started swimming,” she explained. “When I was in high school, my family then moved to Ava, where I continued swimming. So, I’ve been swimming competitively since I was 7.”
Each summer, Leonard coached the summer swim teams in Ava, which, like her teaching, lasted several decades.
In college, she was a lifeguard.
In the summers, she was a “pool mom” at the Kanakuk camps in Branson.
“A lot of my life has been spent in and around swimming pools,” Leonard said, smiling. “That passion carried over to my boys, who now are adults, as they took over the programs in Ava when they became juniors and seniors in high school.
“So, I guess the point is that I love the sport of swimming. And I also love coaching. After a year off, I missed it.”
When offered, Leonard accepted the job as the head swim coach for both schools.
“It’s allowed me to stay in coaching, but it’s a totally different discipline,” she noted. “There’s been a learning curve for me. Coaching is coaching, but in a lot of ways, I had to be a student and quickly soak in information.”
A very competitive person, Leonard wanted to make sure she understood the science of swimming.
“I want to see my kids get better ... it’s as simple as that,” she said. “Improvement is something all coaches seek from their athletes at all levels and all ages.”
She read lots of online blogs.
She watched lots of swimming videos.
“And I picked a lot of brains,” Leonard added. “Here in Seymour, Scott Hepko was a huge asset. He’s had a great deal of success with his Sharks’ team for more than a decade. Scott also knows about competitive swimming. He was a college swimmer.”
Another brain she picked was John Mullen’s.
Mullen, although officially retired, was the longtime swim coach at Springfield Hillcrest and still coaches today.
“I know a lot more than I did two or three months ago,” Leonard said. “I’ll likely know much more than that two or three months from now.
“Best of all, I’m enjoying this. I want to build swimming programs for both schools. The challenge is tougher here in Seymour. Right now, I’ve got one swimmer. I’d like to see our numbers be where Marshfield’s are now for the boys.”
Process will take time
She knows that process will take time.
“Swimming’s not a program we can build in Seymour overnight,” Leonard said. “It’s going to be a slower growth, adding numbers each year. There’s a great base to work with through Scott’s Sharks. There’s a great facility here in Seymour with the YMCA. The school (in Seymour) also is very supportive, and I’ve really enjoyed working with Robbie Jenkins (the school’s athletic director). Anything I’ve needed, he’s been outstanding.”
To that end, Leonard plans to be with the swimming program for the long haul.
“If (Seymour wants) stability with this program, the only way it can occur is for the program to be stable at the top,” she said. “Scott (Hepko) has that with his youth program. That’s why his Sharks have cases full of trophies. The one constant is him and his leadership.
“Now we need that next step at the high school. What’s so great about that is that all of the pieces are there — a supportive school, a supportive YMCA, a great facility. Having two teams together with Marshfield and Seymour also is a big benefit, because it builds camaraderie and it also raises the bar and builds competition.”
Can it happen for Seymour?
“Absolutely,” Leonard quickly answered.
“Listen, Seymour rolled out the red carpet for us. Marshfield’s school will tell you that. The YMCA has done everything it can to help build these high-school swimming teams. Your school here in Seymour is supportive.”
What’s needed, she stressed, are numbers.
“I’m optimistic that we’ll have those seven girls on the (Seymour) team this winter,” Leonard said. “That’s a big step for us. That allows us to compete as a team, to compete in the relays.”
A year from now, she hopes to see Kyran Hepko flanked by several teammate for his senior season.
“Kyran has told me his goal for next fall is to have a relay team,” Leonard said. “There are four people on a relay, and he assures me that he’s going to make that happen.
“When that does happen, it’s a big step for the program. Each year, I’m counting on our numbers to grow.”
She said a model of that slow growth now can be seen in West Plains.
A decade ago, the West Plains program looked much like Seymour’s.
But the program slowly built with the same coach and now is a force in Ozarks’ swimming.
“I’m having a blast,” Leonard concluded.
“Looking ahead, my hope is to continue in this position as the (swimming) coach and to grow these programs.”
Any high-school student in Marshfield or Seymour interested in swimming is urged to contact Leonard, who practices with her teams after school each day at the Seymour YMCA at 315 East Center Avenue.