Swimming and O’Neal have gone hand in hand from almost the beginning. The natatorium was a part of O’Neal’s first brick and mortar project which is comprised of the Edward Taws Education Center, Tate Gymnasium and the pool. For many years it was the only offering in town.
In December of 1976 the O’Neal Family Athletic Club was established, allowing families of students as well as others in the community access to the gym and pool. The days and times were specific – Mondays and Wednesdays 6:30pm to 9pm. Sunday afternoon sessions were later added. It was important for the School to offer up its facility to the community.
Swimming for Physical Education
Unique to any school around, with a pool on campus, swimming became a part of the physical education curriculum. Among the many attractions for enrolling in O’Neal, the idea of swimming while attending school is an easy decision. Students in kindergarten through middle school spend several weeks in the pool as part of the PE rotation. For most, the swimming unit is taken twice a year, unless the older middle school students opt to play on a sports team, where sports team practice replaces the PE time slot. The real exhilaration; however, is spending time at swim class with kindergarten and first grade students as they are so delighted in their achievements by learning a new stroke, swimming to a challenging destination or simply floating on their backs. There’s so much fortune in having the ability to teach young students the art of swimming… for strong minds, healthy bodies, and life.
Swimming as a Team Sport
The first swim team for O’Neal started in 1976. On record, girls team has won five state championships and the boys team has won three state championships. Both teams also won the conference championship this past year tallying the number of conference titles to 14 for the girls and 16 for the boys.
The late Greg Doughty ’07 still holds the state record for NCISAA Division 3 Men 100 Free at 47.16 won on February 2, 2017. Ellie Henry ’18 holds the Women 100 Back at 57.44, won ten years later February 20, 2017.
Swimming Success after O’Neal
Many O’Neal alumni have signed on to college and university swim programs. At the age of 6, Doak Finch ‘96, took up swimming and never looked back. first through 12th He, like his older sister, his twin sister and younger brother, attended O’Neal from grade. When he was old enough to join the O’Neal swim team, he was one of four who represented the boys’ team. He swam under Marsey Peterson, who was not only the O’Neal swim coach but also founder of the local swim team, the Sandhills Sandsharks. During his four years of swimming for O’Neal, he was All-American. “We never won a state championship, but we were always runner-up,” says Doak. “Back then, there were no divisions defined by school size, so we competed against larger schools like Charlotte Latin and Ravenscroft.”
His most memorable time at O’Neal was after the state tournament, Coach Peterson would take the team to Philadelphia where they would compete in the Easterns. One of the top swim tournaments on the East Coast, powerhouse academies like Germantown, Peddie, and Mercersburg would be the opponents. “We swam well individually,” says Doak. “It was a great way to see where we stood and we always enjoyed it.”
Doak’s swimming career while in college consisted of repetitive outstanding achievements. A swimming scholarship recipient, Doak was team captain as a sophomore, junior and senior and was the team’s top butterfly and individual medley swimmer.
By the time Doak graduated from UVA, he was an 11-time NCAA All-American. He was a seven-time first-team All-American, including four first team honors in the 200 butterfly. He was an 11-time ACC champion (eight individual and three titles), the 1997 ACC Rookie of the Year and MVP of the 1998 ACC Championship meet. He became the 14th individual to win four successive ACC titles in the same event in 2000 (400 IM). Doak represented the United States at the 1999 World University Games in Palma, Spain, finishing sixth in the 200 fly. He placed seventh in the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials in the 200 butterfly where the top two who qualified for the Olympics team were current (at the time) record holder for the 200 fly, Tom Malchow and Michael Phelps.
After holding coaching positions at his alma mater as well Penn State, he enters his 7th season coaching for Duke University swimming as associate head coach.
Access to year-round swimming is a strong contributor to the success of O’Neal’s swimmers. When the swim coach, Marci Peterson, is also the founder of the year-round swim club based at O’Neal’s pool, it makes for a perfect formula. The Sandhills Sandsharks rented O’Neal’s pool from its origin in 1982 through 2018.
The pool was renovated in 2017 by way of O’Neal’s annual Fund a Need project. It was named the Aquatics Center at Taws Hall. In 2018, O’Neal founded its own year-round swim team – The O’Neal Pelagics. Pelagic [pə-ˈla-jik] is defined as any type of life that exists in the open sea that doesn’t depend on the ocean bottom or the shore to live. Jen Schmitz, PE swim instructor and swim team coach took the helm as director of O’Neal Aquatics presiding over the Pelagics as well as the Falcon Swim School – offering swim lessons in the summer, swim leagues for O’Neal students and weekend swim lessons for preschool age children in the spring. The Pelagics and Falcon Swim School have developed into healthy, high demand programs for the community.
Visit O’Neal Swim Programs Page to learn more.
Falcons Fly to 50
O’Neal is excited to share its history with readers as it quickly nears its 50th year in educating and cultivating youth in becoming successful, effective contributors to communities large and small. The official celebration starts school year 2021/2022. This weekly blog will focus on different aspects of the School as it grew through the years. With every entry, there is just as much more information to gather than what is already written. Readers who have been a part of the O’Neal community are encouraged to reach out and share their O’Neal memories. It is with great hope that the efforts of many in contributing information and photography can be published into a book for reflection and reference as the School continues to prosper for the next 50 years.
Please send your memoirs and photos to:
The O’Neal School
c/o Kathy Taylor, Director of Communications
P.O. Box 290
Southern Pines, NC 28388