Talented trio has helped lead Avon Grove swimming team to unprecedented success
● By Steven Hoffman
Four years ago, when Serena Derderian, Clare McGovern, and Olivia Paoletti arrived as ninth-graders at Avon Grove High School, there were only modest expectations for the school’s swimming team. The talented trio knew each other from having competed together on the same club team, the Delaware Swim Team, and they knew that they would be joining a squad that already had some talented swimmers and divers, but Avon Grove had always found it difficult to win in the highly competitive Ches-Mont League. So the expectations were definitely tempered.
“I think we felt like we had a strong team,” Paoletti explained. “We just wanted to win a few meets.”
The team did exactly that. The Avon Grove girls won a few meets. The newcomers really made a splash, setting personal records and then quickly surpassing those records. The team won a few more meets. Head coach Kelly Burk and assistant coach Chic McKnelly guided the team’s progress, charting a path for each swimmer to succeed in a way that was good for the whole team. On club swimming teams, an emphasis is placed on the performances of individual swimmers, but swimming is very musch a team sport at the high school level, where individual performances translate into points for the team. It takes a certain amount of selflessness for athletes to accept roles that are best for the team, and Burk and McKnelly didn't have to worry about McGovern, Derderian, and Paoletti being team players. By the end of that season, Avon Grove had captured its first-ever Ches-Mont League National Division crown.
Avon Grove’s swimming team has been consistently excellent ever since. While the initial goal might have been to win a few meets, Avon Grove far exceeded those modest expectations, posting a 34-0 record against league opponents. The swimmers have completely rewritten the team’s record books. In March of 2017, Avon Grove captured a state championship.
To win the state title, Avon Grove had to overcome teams like North Penn, a perennial power that boasted nearly four times as many swimmers as the Avon Grove squad did.
Vanessa Robtison, the Avon Grove High School athletic director and one of the swimming team's biggest supporters, noted that it had been four decades since an Avon Grove High School team had captured a state title in any sport before the swimming team did it in 2017. Robtison said that it took a team comprised of such good individuals to be the one to finally break through and bring a state championship back to Avon Grove.
“It's a special group of kids and a special coach,” Robtison said. They are outstanding young adults and they have a great rapport with the coach. They are tremendous students and representatives of Avon Grove.”
Even though Avon Grove has a comparatively small roster of swimmers, each member of the team made valuable contributions during this run of success. McGovern, Derderian, and Paoletti formed the nucleus of the squad.
McGovern, the daughter of Harry and Patti McGovern of Landenberg, is a go-to distance swimmer for the team. Burk said that McGovern is a versatile swimmer who can compete well in many different events, depending on what the team needs.
“She is our quiet leader of the team,” Burk said.
McGovern will be swimming for the University of South Carolina.
Like McGovern, Derderian has proven time and again that she is willing to compete in different events based on what the squad needs. This was important to Avon Grove’s successful bid for a state title.
Burk also praised Derderian’s ability to lift up her teammates when challenges arise.
“Serena is our biggest cheerleader at our meets,” Burk said. “She knows how to lighten the mood and bring a smile to everyone’s face both before the meets and during them.”
Derderian is the daughter of Dikran and Michele Derderian of Avondale. She is heading to Tufts University after graduating from Avon Grove.
Burk described Paoletti, one of the elite swimmers in the state, as the rock and foundation of the team over the last four seasons. Paoletti is the daughter of Rich and Vicki Paoletti of Lincoln University, and is heading to Yale University.
“This year, she is a team captain and I could go on and on about her,” Burk explained. “She is extremely humble and never takes anything for granted. Even when she is not feeling her best, she will swim with grit and determination to help the team.”
In a sport where the difference between success and failure can be measured in seconds, grit and determination can't be overvalued.
One of the reasons for Avon Grove's success has been the character of the individuals on the team—the swimmers have been shaped by both their successes and their failures.
“During your entire high school career,” Paoletti explained, “there are times when you struggle. Swimmers tend to be very hard on themselves. Persistance is so important.”
Even though Paoletti has enjoyed a lot of success in each of her four seasons at Avon Grove, she also knows what it's like to struggle. When she went to compete in the Olympic trials between her sophomore and junior years, Paoletti's times were not what she wanted.
“From that experience, I know that I grew as a swimmer and as a person,” Paoletti explained.
McGovern went through a trying experience during her freshman year when she needed to work on changing her swimming techniques. She was relegated, briefly, to a group with younger swimmers. Then, in the middle of the season, she cut her foot on a nail and needed six stitches to close the wound. She worked through the setbacks and by the end of the season was a key contributor to her team's success.
“I think that made me mentally stronger,” McGovern said.
Derderian agreed, explaining that it's very iportant to improve your mental strength to be able to push on when you feel like you've reached a plateau. Derderian explained that it can take a lot of training and hard work to make slight adjustments to swimming techniques to see even modest individual improvements. For Derderian, qualifying for states during the junior year was an achievement that made the hard work worth it.
Paoletti said that it can be very challenging to work hard and not see immediate results, but sometimes that's what is necessary to improve as an athlete. Eventually, the results will materialize. She was able to win four individual PIAA gold medals and a state title as part of a relay team—and in the process of winning those medals produced a significant number of points for Avon Grove in the quest to win a team state title.
“Doing that for the team was really important to me,” Paoletti said.
Considering the extraordinary success that they've had as swimmers, and the enthusiasm with which they talk about the sport, it is hardly surprising that Derderian, McGovern, and Paoletti all love being in the water―and they've loved it for most of their young lives.
Paoletti has been swimming since the age of four, taking up the sport because her parents wanted all their children to know how to swim for safety reasons. McGovern started swimming at about the age of four. Derderian might have been about six when she first took up swimming. They've all put in a lot of hard work to achieve their success, but they've also received a lot of support through the years, starting with their families.
According to Robtison, that support has palyed an important role in the success of the swimming team. There are many club coaches, teammates on various club teams, as well as members of the Avon Grove community who helped along the way. The swimmers agreed that this support was very important to their success through the years.
All three of the swimmers also said that they were very proud to represent Avon Grove, especially when the team advanced to compete against not just the best squads in the area, but against the best teams in the entire state.
Now, as seniors, Paoletti, McGovern, and Derderian and looking to make one more push to compete at their highest level in state competitions. There are far too many factors that go into winning a state title as a team for anyone to reasonably expect that Avon Grove could repeat as state champions—there's just too much good competition. But that is definitely the goal that the Avon Grove swimmers have set for themselves as the post-season approaches.
“It would be cool to win again, so we are setting the bar there,” Paoletti explained. “We have a target. That's our goal.”
Although their time together as members of the Avon Grove High School swimming team is nearing an end, all three are poised to start their collegiate careers in a very strong position as a result of all the hard work that they've put in.
“My working hard in swimming make sme want to work harder in the classroom and on other things,” McGovern said. “I think it will have a big impact in the future.”
Just one way to measure how good the Avon Grove swimmers are: Paoletti, McGovern, and Derderian have a combined high school GPA of 4.15―despite the fact that they train more than 20 hours per week to improve their swimming.
Burk said that all three swimmers are a perfect example of what a student-athlete should be. “They all balance their successes in the pool with their training while studying hard and upholding the expectations in the classroom,” Burk said. “All three will do what it takes to do what is best for the team.”