Meet the Mason coach who has helped a once-rec program become a ‘gold medal’ club

Ken Heis, coach of the Mason swimming team. CONTRIBUTED
Ken Heis, coach of the Mason swimming team. CONTRIBUTED

Manta Rays make history with gold ranking.

The City of Mason Manta Rays have been awarded the top honor of a Gold medal ranking in the USA Swimming Club Excellence program. The USA Swimming Club Excellence program recognizes the organization’s highest-performing, well-rounded programs in the development of athletes, ages 18-years-old and younger.

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“Starting as a City of Mason Parks & Recreation program 15 years ago, Mason Manta Rays have been blessed with so many talented young athletes and coaches that make it possible for us to achieve this standard of excellence for the first time. These swimmers all had great age group coaches who guided them along the way and we are very fortunate to have had had most of our coaches for over 10 years. We are so proud of the athletes who made this recognition possible as well as the swimmers who came before them who laid the foundation for this year’s success,” said Ken Heis, head swim coach, Mason Manta Rays.

The Mason Manta Rays finished in eighth out of over 3,000 teams. The Manta Rays were the only team in Ohio to achieve the Gold Medal status and the highest Club Excellence place for a team from Ohio.

We spoke with head coach Ken Heis of the Mason Manta Rays to find out more about the honor and the swimming program in Mason.

The City of Mason brought Heis to Mason in the fall of 2003 to start the Mason Manta Ray program. He has been coaching for twenty years and has coached 18 Olympic Trial Qualifiers, 30-plus Ohio High School State Champions, Sectional Champions, three National Junior Team members, and Top 10 in the nation swimmers. He is the High-Performance group coach and assists on all levels of the team.

In 2017, the Manta Ray boys won the USA Summer Junior Nationals and USA Winter Junior Nationals, and the girls won the 2017 NASA Junior National Cup. Ken has been awarded the 2007, 2008, 2016 and 2017 “Ohio Swimming Coach of the Year.”

As a swimmer, Heis was a three-time Ohio High School State qualifier (at Turpin High), a 22-time All-American, Olympic Trials qualifier, NCAA D-III National Record Holder, a 16-time National Champion and he has been inducted to the Kenyon College Athletic Hall of Fame.

Q: Tell us about yourself and your family?

A: Prior to becoming the head swim coach of the program in Mason, I served as the head coach of the Aiken-Augusta Swim League in Augusta, Ga., for three years. Before that, I was an assistant coach at Clemson University and head coach of the Anderson Swim Team in Anderson, South Carolina. I am an American Swimming Coaches Association (ASCA) Level 4 Certified Coach, and I serve on the Central Zone Senior Sectional committee and Ohio Senior Committee. As a native of Cincinnati, I graduated with a degree in Economics from Kenyon College. Currently, I reside in Terrace Park with my wife, Jeni, our sons Quinn and Corbin, and our daughter Rorie.

Q: For those not familiar with the Mason Manta Rays, tell us about the program?

A: The City of Mason's Mason Manta Rays swim team was developed in 2003. Since then, the swim team has seen significant growth, starting at 110 swimmers in the team's inaugural year to just over 300 swimmers today, a 173 percent increase in members. In addition to the growth, the team has also seen successful in building a competitive program, with not only introducing many beginner swimmers to competitive swimming, but also having eighteen swimmers who have or will compete in the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, as well as multiple years in which the program was ranked in the Top 50, nationally. Swimmers attend a placement session in July of each year and sign up for a year-round program that goes from September to August.

Q: Specifically, talk about the recent top honor you received. Are there other rankings or levels you received?

A: Becoming a Gold Medal Club has been a long-term goal for our swimmers, coaches, and administration. Being ranked 8th in the country ahead of over 3000 other teams is something our swimmers and coaches have worked hard to achieve. To make our feat even more astonishing, we are only a team of 300 swimmers compared to the other Gold Medal teams who have 500-1,500 swimmers. We also scored the most points ever towards this award for a team from Ohio.

We are very fortunate to have a beautiful 25m x 25-yard facility; however, award points for this honor (usually) only comes from competitive swims in an Olympic sized 50-meter facility. We are the only team in the top 50 teams without a 50-meter facility. Only a few teams in the history of the Club Excellence program have ever achieved gold medal status without a 50-meter facility.

Following a banner swim year, the City of Mason coaches swept the 2017 Ohio Coach of the Year awards. These awards were voted on by coaches from the 60-plus teams in Ohio — and will be awarded at the Ohio Swimming Banquet in April of 2018. Each award comes with a $1000 stipend for continuing education.

Coach Todd Billhimer was voted “Ohio Age Group Coach of the Year” for leading the age group (14 and younger) portion of our program to its highest finish ever at the Ohio JO State Meet (3rd in both Short Course and Long Course) as well as placing one swimmer into the USA Swimming National Select Camp. This was the first time the team and Coach Billhimer has won this award.

Additionally, I was voted as the “Ohio Senior Coach of the Year” (ages 15 and older) for leading the team to winning the men’s USA Swimming Junior National Championships by the largest point margin in history, setting numerous state and national records, putting one swimmer on the USA World Junior Team, and for the winning the women’s NASA Junior National Cup.

Q: Who were some of the participating athletes?

A: Mason Manta Rays athletes that contributed to the point total include Allison Bloebaum, Lauren Olson, Cora Dupre, Hannah Foster, Ashley Volpenhein, Tyler Babinec, Gordon Wheeler, Griffin Manning, Adam Chaney and National Junior Team members Jake Foster and Carson Foster.

While these swimmers scored points, the entire team helped them get there by pushing them on in training or by cheering them on at swim meets.

Q: How can readers and their children find out more or sign up to participate?

A: Visit our website at www.masonswimming.org. Anyone interested in learning more about year-round swimming or about how you can begin swimming year-round is encouraged to attend placements in July of each year and/or to email Heis at kheis@masonoh.org. Also, direct any questions to coach Todd Billhimer by email at tbillhimer@masonoh.org.

Contact this contributing writer at gmwriteon@aol.com.