An unbreakable bond

GARRISONVILLE — North Stafford’s Dan Slear, Ryan Malkiewicz and Dan Harrigan are each accomplished individual swimmers. But when they team up, they become something special.

They also become unbeatable.

According to Wolverines coach Traci Abramson, the trio has never lost a relay race, no matter who the fourth swimmer is.

Slear, Malkiewicz and Harrigan will have a chance to extend that streak during Saturday’s Northwest Region Championships at the Chinn Center in Woodbridge. Their 400-yard freestyle relay seed time of 3:29.84 — with freshman Bill Ingalls — is the fastest in a region that includes defending state champion Cave Spring, Cardinal District champion Woodbridge and Cedar Run District champion Osbourn.

“We could still drop more [time] off that,” said Harrigan. “That time won’t hold up at states.”

The trio also joins breast stroker Damian Rodino on a 200-yard medley relay team that is seeded third in the region with a 1:45.74.

Their relay success at this past Friday’s Commonwealth District Meet helped the Wolverines hoist the first boys championship trophy in team history.

“It felt really good because North Stafford hasn’t won the district,” said Harrigan.

Though unbeaten in relays, it was a race card and a trip to the bathroom that separated the Wolverines from an unbeaten dual meet season.

Against Colonial Forge, says Abramson, they expected 26 points in the 100 freestyle and got two. They lost to their district rival by 22 points.

“Bill was in the bathroom, and Dan [Harrigan] forgot his card,” laughed Malkiewicz. “We would’ve been undefeated.”

Ingalls missed the start of the race and never swam. Harrigan won, but forgetting to turn in his card got him disqualified.

The incident left a bitter taste in their mouths, but winning the district title (Albemarle was the closest competitor, 22 points behind) made up for the in-season loss.

Now, with Northwest Region opponents ahead, the Wolverines will try to finish on top even though they’re bringing just eight boys to the Chinn Center.

“I think we finished sixth last year in the region,” said Harrigan. “Stafford beat us last year, so this year I think we’ll finish top-three maybe, if we finish top-three in our relays.”

“I think we have a great chance to do well,” said Slear. “We’re not going in as the fastest team, but we’ve got that much potential.”

How that potential became a swimming success story has roots as far away as Texas and Japan.

Harrigan is a sophomore who began his adventures in the water with the Park Ridge Pirates at age nine. He discovered his natural ability, and decided to stick with swimming.

Harrigan is the resident sprinter and swims the freestyle in the medley relay.

Malkiewicz joined Harrigan after moving to the area in June of 1997. He’d started swimming at age 8 for a powerhouse country club team in El Paso, Texas.

“Ryan is the flyer,” said Slear. “He’s a good distance swimmer, but not much of a sprinter. Dan is the opposite.”

Malkiewicz, also a sophomore, is the district champion in the 200 freestyle and swims the butterfly in the medley.

Slear, a versatile senior and possibly the most talented of the bunch, moved around on account of his father, who served in the U.S. Air Force. Slear quit swimming while living in Las Vegas, but resumed when his family moved to an Air Force base in Japan. He then swam with CYAC in Charlottesville — with many current members of Albemarle’s team — then joined QDD and now swims with highly-regarded Curl Burke in Fairfax County.

The trio laughs at their schoolmates who think competitive swimming compares to a leisurely summer dip in the pool.

A swimmer must stay in good shape, develop muscle and lung capacity while honing technique. And a swimmer can always get better.

“Even at the level I’m at [in high school],” said Slear, “at the meets I go to [with Curl Burke], I’m one of the slowest.”

Slear is also the group’s key to a good relay race. If he starts well, everything else goes smoothly.

“When you get a lead in a relay,” said Harrigan, “you put the people behind you in your wake, so you can just keep ’em behind you as long as you have a strong kick and a strong pull.”

“Having the lead is like the most important thing,” said Malkiewicz, “because as soon as your guys see you falling behind, they start getting down. It seems like as soon as you start worrying about your stroke, your turnover rate and everything, your stroke starts to fall apart. If you swim your own race without having to worry about anyone else, your stroke will be fine.”

This is a relay group that likes to lap its opponents when Slear swims his anchor leg. They may be going in as favorites in at least one relay event, but it’s not a role they relish.

“I’d rather not be the favorite,” said Malkiewicz. “If you get upset, it looks really bad. But if you’re the one doing the upsetting, it looks better.”

“You’ve got nothing to gain and everything to lose,” said Slear.

“If you go in with the attitude that you’re first,” said Harrigan, “they you might not swim as hard as if you were second or third or fourth, and not try and make up for the deficit.”

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