New District 51 swim coach brings state success to Western Slope
After nine successful years at a Denver school, Don Ray Craft hopes to make a splash on the Western Slope as the new District 51 boys swim coach.
Craft, who goes by D. Ray, is thrilled to take over the program. He also wants to put his own stamp on the team.
“I’m definitely excited,” he said. “It’s like a kid getting a brand new box of Legos for Christmas, and you get to build anything you want.”
For eight years, Craft built and molded the Denver East boys swim team into a competitive program after starting it from the ground up. The team finished in the district’s top three all nine years under Craft and won the past three district titles. He also was selected co-coach of the year by the Colorado High School Activities Association in 2008.
The D51 Griffins won their sixth straight Southwestern League title last year under Jessica Haley. This year, the veteran coach decided to step down from the boys program but remains the Fruita Monument girls swim coach.
Craft said it’s a huge benefit to take over a successful program, and he wants to now put the focus on finding success at the state level.
“The first step is getting them over to the other side of the mountain and getting them exposed to those other swimmers,” he said.
The Griffins will travel to three meets in the Denver area, including two at the venue for the Class 5A state swim meet in Thornton.
Craft, who has coached swimming for 14 years, said he brings a unique coaching style that focuses on developing the athlete more than just the swimmer.
“I have a nontraditional coaching style,” he said. “I like to mix up practices and programs, so it’s not the same thing every day. I like to keep things interesting.”
“Better athletes make for better swimmers,” he added.
He still embraces the typical formula of success that includes yardage and sprint training, but he throws in plyometrics, yoga and dry-land training, including weightlifting.
Things will be a little different from before, he admits.
“It’s a step-by-step philosophy, and what I see, those kids have got the mind-set for success,” he said.
Palisade Athletic Director Mike Krueger, who was involved in the hiring process, said Craft will be a great addition.
“He has extensive experience and has been very successful as a high school swim coach,” Krueger said. “He was very well-respected as a coach on the Eastern Slope. He also has extensive experience in developing youth swim programs.”
Craft, 31, graduated from George Washington High School in 2001 where he played basketball and a little baseball but didn’t swim competitively at the high school level. His swim coaching experience started with the Denver Parks and Recreation Department when he was still in his teens.
Krueger also said Craft has experience in leading a combined program, which is how the D51 program works.
“It’s definitely a unique situation,” Craft said about the combined D51 program. “But it also creates a good competition within the team.”
The team has swimmers from all four District 51 schools.
Craft knows a solid club program in the offseason is key to a successful high school program.
“It helps take the novice level out of swimming,” he said. “You get the technical and big-meet experience out of the way right off the bat.”
After seeing his swimmers compete with as many as 10 different club teams in the Denver area, Craft is looking forward to swimmers being part of just one club team in Grand Junction.
Krueger also said he was impressed that Craft’s philosophy goes beyond the pool.
“Most importantly, he coaches kids and not just swimming,” he said. “Coach Craft will be a great fit because his philosophy is that we use swimming as the avenue to develop responsible, caring, young men of strong character.”
Craft moved to Grand Junction after his wife, Savanah, took a middle school teaching job in August. They have a 3-year-old daughter, Channing.
The Griffins start their season with the Southwestern League Relays at Colorado Mesa University on Saturday.