Fountain Valley Swimmers Make the Cut for Coach Kelly


Nobody who tries out for the girls’ swimming team at Fountain Valley High is turned away, even though the Barons are one of the top teams in the county.

“I don’t cut, period,” Coach Debbi Kelly said. “I figure if any one of these girls can put up with my workout schedule, then they should be allowed to swim.”

Kelly’s schedule is grueling, with workouts six days a week starting at 5 a.m. Considering that many of the girls who swim for Fountain Valley are not members of swim clubs and, thus, are not accustomed to the demands of such rigorous training, the turnout is pretty amazing.

The Barons’ roster lists 85 swimmers, with 22 on the varsity team.


Kelly said she began the early morning workout to accommodate the schedules of her club swimmers and to avoid friction between club and non-club swimmers.

“I just think it’s important for all the swimmers to work out as a team,” Kelly said. “I can understand how there might be some anger with the non-club swimmers regarding the club swimmer. . . . I mean, you have a group of girls working out hard, and then comes the day of the meet and they have to step aside to make room for the club swimmer.”

At some schools, club swimmers work out exclusively with their club and only show up at the high school pool on the day of a meet. “That won’t happen on my team,” Kelly said.

Based on last season’s results, Kelly’s approach works.


Last year, Fountain Valley defeated Marina and Los Alamitos for the Sunset League championship and the Barons won at the Southern Section Relays, beating such top teams as Irvine, Mission Viejo and El Toro. Fountain Valley also finished first at the Foothill Games in Tustin.

Fountain Valley was runner-up to Ventura Buena at the Southern Section Division I finals and finished the season as the county’s top-ranked team. This season, the Barons are expected to pick up right where they left off.

“In order to make this team work, we need every girl’s participation,” Kelly said. “That’s why I don’t believe in cutting. If a girl makes an effort and comes to the workouts and really tries, she deserves to swim on this team and compete for her school.

“During these years of these kids’ lives, it’s so important to belong. And I’m not going to be the one to say they don’t belong.”

Senior Vinessa Tjoa, who also swims for the Los Caballero Swim Club in Fountain Valley, was a Sunset League champion last year and a section finalist in the 50 and 100 freestyles. Tjoa, a co-captain of the high school team, says Kelly is one of the best coaches she has had.

“She really listens to you,” Tjoa said. “If you have a problem, Debbi will stop and sit down and talk to you. She also knows what she’s doing when she coaches.”

Tjoa said Kelly is also a great motivator.

“When you look at some of the teams we beat last year and how well we did on relays, it makes you wonder about how come we swam so well,” Tjoa said. “We beat schools that have some great swimmers. But Debbi gets us all up for the meet. We think we can beat anybody.”


Kelly, who is beginning her 13th year of coaching at Fountain Valley, graduated from the school in 1977. She was a member of the school’s swim team, competing in the 500 freestyle and 200 individual medley.

“When I first started to coach here, it was kind of weird,” Kelly said of returning to her alma mater. “But now I can’t think of anywhere else I would rather be.”

Morning workouts end for Kelly and her charges about 7 a.m., and she admits the early hours are hard on her as well as her team.

After the morning sessions, she has to scramble get to her administrative job at Edison Mission Energy in Irvine. But she says she has never had second thoughts about her second career.

“I love high school swimming. I love to work with these kids. When I leave the pool deck and go to work, you wouldn’t believe the energy that is coming out of me.”

Kelly said her team knows it will have a tough time repeating its success this season.

“Irvine will be tough,” she said. “They have so much talent over there and they want to beat us. But I think we still have a chance this year. The girls are pumped and I’m always ready to get them going. But no matter how we finish, I’ll always be proud of these girls.”