SOLANA BEACH — For the first time since 2013, the Rancho San Dieguito swim team took top honors in the overall team championship at the San Diego-Imperial Swimming Long Course Junior Olympics held July 27 to July 30 at the Brian Bent Memorial Aquatics Complex in Coronado.
With 4,571.5 points, the athletes from the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Dieguito recaptured the title from their longstanding rival, Carlsbad-based North Coast Aquatics.
“I’m just happy that we were able to have a great competition with them this year,” head coach Joe Benjamin said. “It goes back and forth.”
Individual high scorers included Ian Palmroos, Carlos Munoz Rentaría and Brandon Kulik.
The Rancho San Dieguito swimmers were also dominant in relays, taking first place in the 11- to 12-year-old girls 200-meter freestyle and 200-meter medley; 13- to 14-year-old boys 400- and 800-meter freestyle and 400-meter medley; 15- to 18-year-old girls 400- and 800-meter freestyle and 400-meter medley; and 15- to 18-year-old boys 400-meter freestyle.
The Rancho San Dieguito team, which currently includes 475 members ranging from 5 to college age, started in 1986 with one pool at the Solana Beach facility.
The second pool was built in 2006. More than 1,000 swimmers have competed at the college level, with hundreds having received more than $2 million in athletic scholarships.
A lifelong swimmer, Benjamin was team captain while attending the University of Georgia. After graduation he drove with his dog to San Diego.
“It’s the best thing I ever did,” he said. “I came with a sales job but I really felt the calling to stay involved in swimming. I have a true passion for it.”
While working as an assistant coach for a team in the Poway area, he noticed many of the swimmers lived on the coast. Currently an Encinitas resident, Benjamin lived in Oceanside at the time.
So they didn’t have to make the drive, he started holding morning practices for them at the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Dieguito, where he eventually took a co-coaching position. There were 30 swimmers at the time.
Benjamin was named the organization’s aquatics director and the team’s head coach in 1996.
“It really started to take off,” he said. “Within a year we had 130 kids and the same number on a waiting list. It went that way for 10 years.
“When the second pool was built our small team became a bigger team and we were able to dive and do things so that we became more and more competitive, growing in quality and size every year.”
Benjamin said one key to the program’s success can be found in six words on the team shirts: respect, integrity, leadership, quality, teamwork and excellence.
“We try hard to not just say those words and have the kids memorize them but also let them know what they mean and how they can guide them in their pursuit of excellence in swimming,” he said.
“We also make it clear that whatever level they end up — and we have from the very bottom to the very top — it’s the character building that comes along with that pursuit that is the main priority,” he added. “We have a clear vision and some clear team values which we take very seriously.”
Benjamin also credits his 13 coaches and support from the community and the Boys & Girls Clubs.
“I love the team and the family environment we’ve created here, and I feel like I’ve been able to stay challenged and engaged by setting high goals and continually reaching them and then resetting,” he said.
“Also, the Boys & Girls Clubs have recognized and are very appreciative of what we’ve brought to the overall organization,” Benjamin added. “I’ve been able to stay challenged with opportunities for growth.”
Following the team’s championship win last month, Benjamin took four swimmers — team captain Rachel Rhee, Kira Crage, Joshua Hee and Stephan Lukashev — to the U.S. Junior National Championships in Long Island at the beginning of this month.