More than pizza and sharks motivate Owings Mills JCC Barracudas swim team member Alan Cherches. He also calls upon goal setting, time management and technique improvement. And at the age of 9, he has the track record to back it up.
Last year, Cherches broke many of 18-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps’ 8-and-under records, and he has blasted seven Maryland state age-group records, some of which had been held for more than 20 years. In his age group, he is a five-time state champion and is nationally ranked in the Top 5. But he wasn’t always at one with the water.
“Here’s my Alan, shaking like a leaf; he was greenish blue and crying hysterically,” recalled Olga Cherches, Alan’s mother, as she described his first time in the pool at age 3.
At the time, Alan was enrolled in the Early Childhood Education program at the Jewish Community Center.
“When I got him in the water,” continued Olga, “he squeezed me so hard I could see the marks on my arm.”
Alan’s mother was gentle with him, but both she and her husband, Dmitry, who as a teen was a competitive swimmer, wanted their son to be comfortable in the water.
Alas, Alan’s general distaste for swim lessons persisted. The turning point came when his grandfather, Nikolay Mandel, began taking him regularly to the JCC pool.
“He would tell me if I went under the lane line and back, he would buy me pizza in the café,” remembered Alan. “That’s what got me. Then I started to do way more because I thought I might get a whole box [of pizza] if I did.”
Over the following year, Alan still didn’t warm up to lessons, but his grandfather was persistent with their after-school trips to the pool. To everyone’s surprise, Alan began to improve noticeably. Then, Alan’s father discovered the JCC swim team.
Alan tried out and made the team at age 5. Olga was shocked: “I said, ‘What? Get outta here! I mean, seriously?’”
For Dmitry Cherches, who swam competitively until he was 14, the accomplishment signaled more than just a spot on the team.
“It’s a repetitive sport. You’re constantly perfecting the strokes, goal setting, seeing those goals being crushed,” said Alan’s father. “That develops a very unique individual who is mentally, physically tough — mentally, because you learn how to control your nerves and your mind.”
Twenty years ago this month, Dmitry arrived in Owings Mills with his family from Minsk, Belarus. He was just 17. The family received assistance from relatives and The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, and upon arrival, Dmitry immediately enrolled at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, carrying 20-plus credits each semester while holding down a full-time job.
Dmitry attributes that effort to a “hard-working immigrant work ethic” but also credits his years as a competitive swimmer, which taught him the value of serious work and discipline.
Olga and Dmitry had known each other from childhood, but when he emigrated they lost touch. When they reunited many years later, it was a swift leap to something more. Olga came to Owings Mills in 2003, and a short time later they married.
Olga immersed herself into learning English, was hired as an information technology recruiter, “networked like crazy” for two years and a few years later started her own recruiting company, Leading Edge Solutions. The couple has three children: Alan, Mark, 6, and Ryan, 1.
With motivated and resolute parents, it seems Alan’s capacity for determination, strong will and perseverance are characteristics he inherited. Olga and Dmitry, however, attribute their son’s success to his own hard work. They also credit the team, other parents’ support and the coaches of the JCC Barracudas, a part of the JCC aquatics department.
“It’s not necessarily the performance, it’s the work ethic that’s important,” said aquatics director Bill Kirkner. “Alan’s not the only one on the team with that ethic. In fact, he’s probably mimicking the work ethic of some of the older kids.”
Kirkner added that when a child sees and understands how hard work can lead to improved performance, it acts like a contagion for success across the team. Barracudas head coach Brendan McElroy agrees.
“Hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard,” said McElroy, reciting an often-used mantra. “If you’re competitive and you work hard, you can go a long way with this sport.”
McElroy’s mission is to promote youth development through excellence in competitive swimming. He describes his program as “character based” and referenced as key factors things such as 5 a.m. practices, leadership, accountability, goal setting, perseverance, managing disappointment and dealing with setbacks. He has been working with Alan for almost two years.
“What I remember most about Alan’s first year was doing my best to call down my assistant coaches for calling him Alan Phelps and gloating over him too much,” said McElroy. “So I had to make a concerted effort. If he walks in late to practice, he does push-ups.
“I want to do my best to treat him as fairly as I can,” continued the coach. “It’s about the team.”
McElroy provided a well-known statistic from USA Swimming, the national organization that registers, supports and ranks competing teams. Only 10 percent of swimmers who are fast at 10 years old are still fast at 18. Some of that has to do with growth; if a child doesn’t have a big enough growth spurt, that may be a drawback. “So it’s all about building and developing and adding on,” the coach said, “and you want to do it smartly.”