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Starting from scratch
"It's not like Mike Fitzgerald's coaching ability is going to be tested by the Bremerton High School girls swimming team.Stretched yes, tested no.The complexity of this team is that it ranges from a national champion to girls who are just getting their faces into the water for the first time, says the affable Fitzgerald, a former coach with Olympic Aquatic Club (OAC).Such is the case with a program that's just getting its feet wet, so to speak. The school resumes an interscholastic program this year after a long absence. The Knights will compete in the Class 4A Narrows League Bridge Division alongside former Olympic League neighbors Central Kitsap and Olympic.And, in at least a few races each meet, they'll be competitive. In a few others - the ones where they can feature U.S. Swim Team member Dana Kirk - they'll be downright dominant.It goes without saying that Kirk, who returned from her silver medal-winning performance at the Goodwill Games in Brisbane, Australia, to begin her workouts with the Knights last week, is the team leader. When she popped open the case containing her Goodwill Games silver and under-18 championship medals, her teammates' eyes popped like soap bubbles.I have a sense that her goal this season is to set a national high school record, says Fitzgerald as Kirk leads his dozen-odd swimmers through stretching exercises on the deck at Glen Jarstad Aquatic Center. That's what motivates her this year.Whatever the reason Kirk - who competed as at-large entries in Olympic League meets two years ago with her older sister, Tara, now a sophomore swimming for Stanford University - turned out, she'll be a marquee attraction, as well as a reliable point producer.Having such a well-travelled and highly decorated leader as Kirk on hand is a bonus for Fitzgerald in the first year of what he admits is a building process. When he nominated the senior - the Knights' only senior - to be team captain and put it to a team vote, the swimmers just gave him a whattayou, crazy? look and put their arms in the air.Everything she brings to this team, she brings back from the top, he says of Kirk, who wears her Team USA cap for Bremerton workouts.What events Kirk - a world-class butterfly competitor who could be in line for the U.S. team that travels to Athens, Greece for the 2004 Olympic Games - swims for Bremerton will depend on who else on the roster does what else. Fitzgerald says he'll give his young group their choice of which events they'd like to swim.Then, he'll have one heckuva stop-gap in Kirk, who can swim any of the strokes.I'm hoping Dana will line up the team for me, he says. We'll see what everyone wants to do, including her. I've never been a coach that told kids what they had to swim.Fitzgerald, a former high school state champion in Virginia who captained the U.S. Naval Academy team as a college senior, started an age-group swim team on Oahu from scratch and saw it grow to more than 100 members.That ground-floor experience will be helpful as he builds the Knights, he says.That's where my real passion for coaching developed, he said of his time a Pearl Harbor, during the last five years of his Navy career.He's been substitute teaching and coaching for OAC since coming to the Bremerton area. He says he'd been talking with the Bremerton School District even before it finalized plans to bring swim teams back into its program. When he saw the position posted, he formalized his candidacy.It's been something that has been missed, he says. I really get the feeling that the school is glad it's back.Aside from Kirk, the Knights aren't bereft of experience, even though many of Fitzgerald's swimmers will be competing for the first time. Several, including sophomore Elysa Aho and freshman Megan Alexander, have some club swimming background.Mostly, though, it'll be a season for the Knights to sort themselves out, while Kirk carries the scoring load.We might not win meets - we're in a building phase, he says. But we're going to improve a lot. We already have. "