Abby Toepfer’s family members aren’t big huggers.
But after she touched the wall at the Boston University pool to win the 500-yard freestyle at the 2022 Division 1 state championship —making her the first Cardinal Spellman swimmer to win a title — the first thing she did was hug her two aunts.
Her parents, Kristen and Mark, looked on from the stands, but her aunts, Kara and Kait McDonough, cheered from the deck; Kara, as Spellman’s coach and Kait as Hingham’s coach.
Toepfer’s family has been at the center of her high school swimming career since it began. When she transferred to Spellman from Braintree as a sophomore, the Cardinals didn’t have a swim team. So she and her older brother, Nick, approached athletic director Mike Gerrish and asked to start one.
They called on McDonough, who had coaching experience with her sister at Hingham, to lead the team.
“I was torn because I had been attached to Hingham for so many years,” Kara McDonough said. “But at the same time, how often do you get that experience to coach your niece, and at the time her brother was on the team too, and it was his senior year. So I was excited to make the switch.”
A little over two years after the siblings’ conversation with Gerrish, Toepfer became Spellman’s first Division 1 state champion. This year, the Cardinals won their first dual meet.
For every milestone, Toepfer has been able to look up and see her family cheering her on.
“It means a lot to have some of my family be there,” said Toepfer, who is committed to swim at Bowling Green State. “It makes me more confident and more comfortable and stuff. And having [McDonough] as my coach — I wish she could come to college with me and be the assistant coach or something.”
Nearly everyone in Toepfer’s family is or was a swimmer at some point in their lives, which she said fostered intense competition, particularly between her and her brother.
They have competed in practice and at meets since they were 7 years old. Nick swims at Louisiana State, but they still compare times when he comes home.
For the one year, the siblings swam together in high school and even after practice ended, the competition kept going.
“We would get home from practice and it would be a rush to get inside to try and get to the dinner table first and get the chair we both liked,” Nick Toepfer said.
It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement for the siblings, who push each other at every opportunity they get.
“She can’t stand to lose, and I think that her ability to just do whatever it takes to win really helps the team,” Nick Toepfer said. “I hate losing as well, and I definitely don’t like losing to her. So I think that between the two of us, that definitely drives both of us to be better.”
In a fledgling program like Spellman, having a swimmer with Toepfer’s level of experience — she also swims for Kingfish — was intimidating for some of her teammates, McDonough said. But once they got to know her, many of her teammates learned that the only people who should be intimidated are her opponents.
“Her experience of being a swimmer for so long has been huge,” McDonough said. “It really helped the team having her around.”
Over the last three years, Toepfer has helped new swimmers learn the ropes, such how to work with different types of equipment during practice, how to improve their stroke technique, and how to prepare for races.
Her dedication to creating a foundation for the team, however, comes at a cost.
Toepfer swims five days per week or more, and she regularly wakes up at 5 a.m. to lift weights. She texts McDonough around 9 p.m. some nights to remind her to go to sleep early to make sure her aunt-slash-coach will wake up in time to attend morning workouts with her.
“She’s sacrificed so much to swim at Spellman,” McDonough said. “She’ll step up for the team, and she swims what the team needs vs. what she wants to swim . . . She’ll do whatever the team needs her to. Sometimes actually some will put them ahead of herself.”
▪ Beverly junior Zachary DaSilva-Grondin founded a nonprofit organization this month that provides humanitarian aid and support to children in Nepal, Mozambique, and Brazil.
Though the nonprofit is still in its infancy, DaSilva-Grondin hopes to combine his love for swimming with his passion for helping others by raising money through charity swim meets.
On a mission trip to Nepal last summer, DaSilva-Grondin learned about the severity of human trafficking in the country and set out to create an organization that seeks to help victims.
“It broke my heart that these children are getting their childhood taken away,” DaSilva-Grondin said. “So I wanted to create something that once they’re rescued, they can have gifts and things that restore that childhood that was taken away from them.”
He expanded the organization’s mission to include Mozambique and Brazil, working with indigenous communities in Brazil and creating recreational opportunities in Mozambique.
DaSilva-Grondin and his organization, Crown a Life, partner with local organizations in the communities he is looking to help.
Beverly coach Brigitte Swift noted that DaSilva-Grondin’s leadership outside of swimming translates well into the pool.
“I definitely know that I can count on him at any point,” Swift said. “Even if it’s an event that he may not want to swim, he’ll definitely do that for the team. He’ll give tips to everyone and is always helpful with every aspect.”
▪ Masconomet’s 200-yard freestyle relay team of Arbri Halilaj, JP Zeeh, Colin Panagos, and Daniel Voner broke a 21-year-old school record in the Chieftains’ meet against Marblehead with a time of 1:38.65. The previous record was set in 2001.
Emma Healy can be reached at email@example.com.