Emily Giarrizzo, 12, and her mother, Chris, are singing Sharon Strople’s praises for encouraging Payson youth to compete in a year-round competitive swimming program despite the lack of facilities in the Rim Country.
Strople’s quest began in 2008 just after the Giarrizzo family moved to the Rim Country from Gilbert.
While living in Gilbert, Emily developed a passion for swimming but realized that moving to Payson might put an end to her involvement in the sport because there is no year-round swim team locally and Taylor Pool is open only during the summer months.
That’s where Strople stepped in.
“We were blessed to meet Sharon within two months of our move and she invited Emily to train with her at the Tonto Pool before school at 5:30 a.m.,” said Chris. “We were shocked at how enthusiastic Emily was to continue to swim even if it didn’t involve competing or friends.”
One year later, Julie Gibson, then 13, joined Sharon and Emily in the early morning swim session.
Buoyed by newfound confidence, the two girls joined USA Swimming and began competing unattached in Valley-area meets.
“Under Sharon’s tutelage, the two Payson girls excelled, setting state title qualifying times,” Chris said.
At the time, Strople said she offered to help the two girls partly due to the lack of swimming facilities in Payson, “Training facilities are weak at best, with no regulation pool for all-year training.
“The pool (Tonto) is five yards short (of regulation) has no lane lines, pool markings or starting blocks.”
Strople also predicted that if Emily and Julie had the opportunity to train year-round they would be “on track for college swimming scholarships.”
As unattached swimmers, Emily and Julie both did well, prompting Strople to encourage both to join a year-round, Valley area swim team.
“She felt they had demonstrated their passion and commitment to the sport, but were missing out on the important elements a team offers” said Chris.
Downplaying her role with the two young swimmers, Strople said, “They have an amateur coach and no team to bond with.”
Strople’s suggestion prompted Chris to research several Valley teams with a goal of selecting the one that would be the best fit for Emily and Julie.
After consulting with the two girls, Chris settled on Swim Neptune, coached by Joe Zemaitis, who eventually visited Payson to hold tryouts for new swimmers interested in joining the Scottsdale-based club.
It wasn’t long before nine local youths signed on to the team, giving Swim Neptune a distinct Payson vibe.
Because Zemaitis couldn’t be in Payson for daily swim sessions, Amity Justice and later Cheryl Chance volunteered to coach the ocal splash crew at the Tonto pool.
The youths, however, had to make frequent trips to the Valley for meets and team practices.
“As many as five days per week,” Chris said.
As rough as being on the road from almost immediately after school each day until almost bedtime was on the Payson youth, they shined in the pool.
“Julie holds a swim team record and trains on Swim Neptune’s Nationals team,” said Chris. “She has competed with collegiate swimmers and Olympians at several sectional meets across the country.”
Garret Chance and Emily both set multiple Far Western Invitational qualifying times and finished in the top 16 in all their races at the Arizona State age group championships and the Junior Olympic games in Houston, Texas.
Fellow team member Catalina Coppelli also turned in sterling performances competing in back-to-back state championships.
“The rest (of the Payson swimmers) have done remarkably well, hitting personal goals and advancing in the sport,” Chris said.
The success of the local young swimmers, Chris contends, can be attributed to Strople and the coaches who followed her.
“If it wasn’t for Sharon’s invitation to Emily and the guidance she offered to Emily and Julie, nine kids in Payson may not have gotten involved and had the success they’ve had,” Chris said.
“Amity’s and Cheryl’s coaching has been much appreciated as it allowed kids that can’t commute to Scottsdale a chance to train in Payson.”
After four years of living in Payson, the Giarrizzo family recently opted to return to Gilbert in part so Emily could train with Swim Neptune without traveling.
“After years of unwavering commitment to the sport, it made sense to move her closer to her team,” said Chris.
While the Giarrizzo family no longer lives in Payson, Chris views the commitment of Strople, Justice and Chance as a lesson in encouragement for all adults, especially parents, “Just a small investment in a child can result in a widespread benefit for many.”