Countryside High School’s Matt Ellis bent into his starting position, flapped his arms across his back and launched at the sound of the horn in each of his individual races.
In a few soaring strokes, the junior pulled ahead of his competitors to win the 50-yard freestyle and 100 butterfly at the Class 3A, Region 2 meet over the weekend.
Based on his times, Ellis is ranked first in the 50 free (21.29 seconds) and is tied for second in the 100 fly (51.24) going into Saturday’s Class 3A state meet at the Orlando YMCA.
“I feel good about my chances of winning,” Ellis said.
This is the type of performance Ellis envisioned when he transferred from Austin, Texas, during the summer. He did it not only to compete against a fast field of swimmers but to reunite with his former club coach, Randy Reese.
Reese, a member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, coached the University of Florida to four national championships and has trained 18 Olympic gold medalists. His brother Eddie, swim coach at the University of Texas, also coached several Olympic teams, including the 2008 U.S. men.
Reese left a position with Longhorn Aquatics to coach the Clearwater Aquatic Team two years ago.
"Matt and his family kept in contact with me for a while after I left,” Reese said. “He wasn’t doing well. I guess when you’ve had success with someone before you want to go back to that person.”
Ellis has always thrived in the sport due in part to a body that resembles an aquatic superhero. He is 6 feet 3 with an eye-popping wingspan that allows him to use fewer strokes than the average swimmer to cover a 50-yard pool. His size 12 feet act as turbocharged flippers.
But Ellis required more than a long and lean build to develop into a top-level swimmer. He needed a coach to help him prepare for hours on end for meets that were months away.
Five years ago, Ellis started training in Texas with Reese, who had a blueprint for long-term success.
“My goal is to reach the 2012 Olympics,” Ellis said.
Ellis continued to grow and get better. He was winning big meets and becoming one of the fastest sprinters in the country.
Reese’s reputation as a top-level trainer continued to grow. So much that Taylor Katz, a former swimmer at East Lake High, flew to Texas a few times a year to train with him. Reese said the Katz family was instrumental in getting him to coach with Clearwater Aquatic Team.
Reese’s decision to leave Texas left Ellis in a bind. He tried a new coach but it didn’t work out.
“It was a disaster,” Ellis said. “I’m a sprinter and the new coach specialized in distance events.”
Ellis finished fifth in the 100 fly in last year’s Texas state meet, far off his goal. In the summer, his family allowed him to train in Clearwater with Reese. It worked so well that Ellis persuaded his family to allow him to stay.
“I’ve always had my best results with Randy,” Ellis said.
Ellis was not the only swimmer from Texas who came to Florida to train. His girlfriend, Maddie Edwards, also worked with Reese and decided to stay.
To establish residence and be eligible to swim, Ellis moved in with Palm Harbor University swimmer David Morgan, who also trains with CAT and Reese.
Edwards, who attends East Lake, moved in with the family of a local swimmer. But she was declared ineligible by the Florida High School Athletic Association because she was already attending classes in Texas before moving.
Ellis attended a big swim meet in Hawaii at the start of the school year and had yet to start classes anywhere before moving in with the Morgans.
“It’s hard at times,” Ellis said. “I miss my family. But I know this is a move that’s making me better.”
Not everyone Reese works with sticks around. The Katz family moved to Sarasota after disagreements over her training, Reese said. Another prominent swimmer also left the CAT program to move to another local club.
“I think the pool (the Long Center) where we train is under an Indian burial ground,” Reese said. “There has always been some problems with parents.”
The drama and proliferation of swimmers coming from Texas has rankled some high school coaches, who think the focus on club swimming detracts from high school meets.
“The emphasis for high school coaches is on allowing local year-round club swimmers to represent their school during the high school season,” said Palm Harbor University coach Lisa Bitting, also a club coach PYP Piranhas in Palm Harbor.
But Ellis is still there, turning lap after lap at the Long Center with his smooth, effortless stroke under the watchful eye of Reese.
“I may not be able to break state records this year,” Ellis said. “But I should be able to win state titles. Hopefully, the records will come with more training.”