The St. John's Prep swim program is a very formidable foe. The Eagles have captured nine of the last 10 Division 1 state championships. Their runner-up finish came last March, nosed out by Westford Academy.
Coach Tony Padvaiskas has a pool of talented swimmers.
Yet, when asked his proudest experience in his two decades as coach, the words 'state' or 'title' are never mentioned. In fact, the achievement has nothing to do with anything with the pool.
Instead, Padvaiskas launched into a discussion on a Toys for Tots drive held at the Danvers YMCA every December. According to the coach, his Prep swimmers have worked with the Y and its charity for a number of years, but really ramped up its focus in 2013.
"Swimming fast is a byproduct of being a good person and doing the right thing," Padvaiskas says.
His program has attained great success in the pool, but Padvaiskas puts great focus on what his swimmers do outside of practices and meets, highlighted by their dedication to the annual toy drive.
Led by senior captains Trevor 'TC' Gowdy , Jake Rhodes , and Joseph Turk , the Eagles put an emphasis on balancing decency and athletic achievement while defining the moral obligations of a high-school student athlete.
In December of 2013, hundreds of toys intended for distribution through Toys for Tots were stolen from a storage container on the front lawn of Bert Russell, a Danvers resident.
A custodian at the Danvers Y, the 83-year-old Russell has been involved with the Toys For Tots drive for more than 40 years . According to Debbie Barrowclough , a health and fitness director at the YMCA, Russell was crushed about the stolen goods.
"[Bert] is a very thoughtful and generous person who's been doing the drive for as long as I can remember," said Barrowclough of Russell, who served in the Marine Corps, which sponsors the Tots program.
When the swim team learned of the incident, they acted quickly, joining the rest of the community to replenish the stolen toys. The Eagles train at the Y.
"Our team has always been about tradition and what's been established before us, so we wanted to help give back to a community that has given so much to our program," Turk said.
"The guys on our team don't know Mr. Russell personally, but he's always been so kind to us over the years and we can appreciate what he does with his work."
The 2013 team captains called upon every swimmer to contribute, and within days, they made a collective donation to Russell.
"[Russell] is a very quiet person so it was great to see how surprised he was by our presentation," Gowdy said.
"Between 6 a.m. practices, school and meets, things can get pretty fast-paced. The whole team bought in on taking the time to focus on something else and helping those in need in our community."
The last two years, the Eagles have repeated the gesture.
Padvaiskas presents the collection to Russell, who distributes the toys to local warehouses.
"It starts every season off on a positive note," Padvaiskas said.
"The team bonds and builds chemistry while doing some good. It's important to be role models for the school and it helps us come together in preparation for competition."
And in competition, the Eagles are just as impressive.
Turk, a three-time Globe All-Scholastic selection, earned All-American honors in the 100 backstroke, 200 individual medley and 200 medley relay events at last year's state meet.
Before heading off to swim at the University of Notre Dame in the fall, he had made it a priority to leave to leave St. John's on top.
"We know we're back, now it's just time to show everyone else," Turk said.
Gowdy, who swims a leg on the All-American relay team, finished third in the 100 breaststroke at the D1 meet.
"He's a jack of all trades, which is invaluable to the team," said Padvaiskas of the University of Massachusetts recruit. "He's made leaps and bounds every year, so he'll be a threat moving forward."
Rhodes is putting his focus on the 50 and 100 freestyle events.
"We've just been working extremely hard in practice because we want to go into states guns blazing," Rhodes said. "We're all in on trying to reclaim what Westford took."
But all three are trying to keep it all in perspective.
"Final results are final results," Rhodes said.
"We focus day in and day out on becoming better people because it's what is important."
And no matter what happens the next two months in the pool, the Eagles' true success will not be measuree in number of victories, or all-state swimmers.
Rather, Padvaiskas's evaluation will focus on character, the most important aspect of the sport in his opinion.
"We don't worry about our things like our chances at a championship, because you can't always control winning." Padvaiskas said. "You can always control your attitude though."
Making a splash
Competitors to watch during the high school boys' and girls' winter swim season:
■ Andrew Carbone, Central Catholic: The junior delivered a runner-up finish in the 100 backstroke (50.73) and a third in the 200 individual medley (1:55.47) at last year’s Division 1 state meet.
■ Kylie Cronin, Marblehead: The senior set the state record in the 100 butterfly (55.56) at last year's D2 meet and also won the 50 frees (24.27) .
■ Jason Jung, Westtford: In the Grey Ghosts’ run to the D1 state title, Jung won the 200 freestyle (1:41.45) and was a member of the victorious 200 freestyle relay.
■ Christian Kinnon, Mystic Valley: The Malden resident paced the Eagles to a third-place finish at last yaer’s state meet, winning the 50 free (21.43) and placing second in the 100 breaststroke (59.61)
■ Meghan Veenstra, Tyngsborough: She registered third- (2:10.70) and sixth-place finishes (5:13.70) in the 200 IM and 500 free at last year’s D1 meet.
■ Sarah Welch, Beverly: A member of the winning 200 medley relay team and second-place finisher in the individual 200 free (1:53.86) , she helped propel the Panthers to a runner-up finish in the D1 state meet.
Ethan Schroeder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.