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RJ Hammond pools his talents to become ‘face’ of Coatesville athletics

FA_RJ_Hammond_croppedR.J. Hammond
By Andy Edwards @CHCAndyEdwards for CHESMONTSPORTS.COM
Photos by Justine Newman Photography

School: Coatesville
Favorite athlete: RJ Umberger
Favorite food: Dad’s jumbalaya
Favorite movie: Miracle on Ice
Favorite TV show: How I Met Your Mother
Favorite music: Linkin Park

CALN – With everything he’s achieved in the pool the last few years, it’s difficult to fathom that RJ Hammond only took up swimming as a means of staying in shape for another sport.

Sure enough, that’s exactly how one of the Ches-Mont League’s premier student-athletes got his start. And if someone had told him on that day three years ago, when he decided to try out for the swimming team, that he would leave Coatesville High School with multiple school records, a league championship, and enough memories to fill a pool, well, no doubt he would have dismissed the notion out of hand.

FA_RJ_Hammond_swim“I probably would’ve thought you were crazy,” said Hammond, who set Coatesville records in the 200 IM (1:58.12) and 100 butterfly (51.97) as a senior. “I never thought I was going to be good. I never even thought I would make varsity.

“I only started swimming my sophomore year, and I was just a new kid hoping to get a good workout in for another sport. Swimming became my life, and now I’m a captain and breaking records. It’s crazy.”

A longtime hockey player, Hammond spent three years on the Red Raider squad before devoting his time entirely to swimming. He traded his skates for goggles before the 2012-13 winter season, looking for a way to maintain his fitness on the ice. Instead, he discovered a previously untapped passion that has blossomed into a continuing career.

“Everyone else believed in me,” Hammond said. “I had a lot of help. (Head coach) Dave Morris and (assistant coach) Dave Trionfetti were my biggest supporters, as well as my family. They told me from the first week that I started: ‘you’re very raw, but once we get your technique down you’re going to be really good.’”

Were they ever right. Hammond improved steadily over the next three years, embarking on a meteoric rise that came to fruition in his final season. Behind Hammond and a host of talented teammates, the Red Raiders completed an undefeated league campaign and ended Perkiomen Valley’s three-year reign top the Ches-Mont League National Division. The title chase went down to the season’s final meet, where Coatesville pulled out a 98-88 decision over the Vikings with everything on the line; Hammond played a major role in securing the crown, winning the 100 butterfly and swimming the third leg of the victorious 200 medley relay.

“Ever since I started swimming, that’s always been the goal that Coach has presented to us: to be Ches-Mont champs,” Hammond said. “Perk Valley has always been the team that stood in our way.

“It was probably the best atmosphere we’ve had all year. We told all our friends to come out. It was the biggest meet of my career, and everyone was out there cheering us. During those relays it got really hard to even hear myself think.”

For Hammond, being the beneficiary of a horde of screaming fans must have felt particularly appropriate. After all, he spent every Friday night of the fall season doing everything he could to create that sort of electricity for the Red Raiders’ main event – football.

FA_RJ_Hammond_chief_2Chief Red Raider, the school’s official mascot, is a time-honored tradition of Coatesville athletics. A position open exclusively to seniors, Chief Red Raider is charged with rallying support for a powerhouse program, leading cheers and bringing the crowd to a fever pitch. With the prodding of his friends, Hammond tried out for the role this year, and wasted little time impressing the selection committee. The rest is history.

“It was the greatest football experience I’ve had in my entire life,” Hammond said. “Being next to the team the whole time and being able to motivate them and looking up at the parents and students doing the same thing, it was just a lot of fun. I’d do anything to do it again.”

Like swimming, the other thing he took up ‘just for fun,’ Hammond was a natural. As the Red Raiders marched all the way to the District 1-AAAA championship game, he was on the sidelines every step of the way, at the head of a sea of red and black.

FA_RJ_Hammond_crowd“People always come up to me and tell me I was one of the best ones we’ve had,” Hammond said. “Even people from other schools – we went up to Central Bucks South, and I had parents from the other side come up and say, ‘you’re one of the most energetic mascots we’ve ever seen.’”

What sets Hammond apart from other Chiefs – and mascots around the country – is that he never took the next day off. Instead, after three hours of pure energy late on a Friday night, Hammond was always in the pool early Saturday morning, one of his eight weekly practices.

“It was really hard,” Hammond said. “Those late games, I’m running around screaming my head off, going home and falling asleep right away. It was rough getting to practice, but some of those Saturday morning practices were the best I’ve had in my life. I told Coach, ‘I think I thrive off being tired.’”

FA_RJ_Hammond_chief_1Morris concurs.

“RJ has an outstanding work ethic,” the Red Raider coach said. “He practiced every day after school, on Saturday mornings, and typically twice a week before school. He never missed one. He works so hard and has a great attitude about practice.”

For Hammond, it was all about doing whatever it took to live up to his own lofty standards.

“I would come in half-awake, and I felt like I was barely going to make it through warm-ups,” Hammond recalls. “But I had goals I wanted to meet this year, and to meet them I was going to have to push through being tired.”

Hammond certainly had a senior season to remember. Though his 100 butterfly performance at the District 1-AAA Championships fell short of his expectations, Hammond still logged season-best splits in all three of his relays, helping the Red Raiders finish 16th in the team standings, a full 10 places ahead of last year’s showing. That’s not to mention the Ches-Mont championship and dual school records, one of which will hold a special place in his memory.

“It has to be either winning the Ches-Mont or breaking the 100 butterfly record,” Hammond answered when asked to name a favorite moment from his swimming career. “It was previously held by Coach Trionfetti – ever since I first started, he was telling me, ‘you’re going to break that record.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know, Coach, I’m nowhere close.’ We got to share a really good moment after I broke it.

“Our principal always announces it at school, and to hear my name in the morning after I broke the records was a great sense of pride.”

A feeling that goes both ways, according to athletic director Corey Sigle.

“From my time knowing RJ, he has a great attitude and work ethic,” said Sigle, whose secretary also happens to be RJ’s mother. “He is always full of energy, yet focused on what he sets out to accomplish. His academic record is very strong and he is actively involved in student life, extracurricular activities and athletics, both at Coatesville and in the community.”

In addition to his individual accolades, Hammond said the Red Raiders swimming team was an especially tight-knit group.

“(Swimming) kept me in really good shape and I really liked the physical aspect of it,” Hammond said. “Plus, the whole team atmosphere was great. Everyone liked each other, and Dave is an awesome coach – he has been one of the main reasons that swimming has become a big part of my life.

“My whole senior year has been great.”

No one, least of all Hammond, could have seen that coming. Though Morris and his staff recognized some potential, they never expected such an accelerated learning curve.

“When he started as a sophomore, I could never have predicted that he would have so much success,” Morris said. “Swimming and diving is dominated by athletes who start very young and train year-round. For RJ to have so much success in only his third year of swimming is remarkable.”

FA_RJ_Hammond_underwaterNow, just three years after joining the swimming team, Hammond is primed to continue his career at the next level. He recently committed to Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he plans to study nursing.

Before that, though, there’s still the spring season. And Hammond, like he did three years ago, has opted to take up another sport to stay in shape for his chosen one. During the swimming season, he decided to join the track team, for which he’ll compete in mid-distance events for the Red Raiders. Practice started last week and, like swimming, it will take some getting used to; he hasn’t competed in track since eighth grade. Of course, that’s nothing new to Hammond. All that remains to be seen now is if history will repeat itself – with his track record (pun intended), Hammond just might end up running in college.

“We’ll see,” he said with a laugh. “The first day of practice was pretty rough.”

Coatesville’s cheerleaders have already asked him to observe tryouts for the next Chief Red Raider this spring. And how fitting that is – over the last year, Hammond has become the face (war paint, headdress and all) of Coatesville athletics.

 “He is so popular because he brims over with enthusiasm and energy,” Morris said of Hammond, who is also student council member. “He has loads of school spirit and has a positive effect on everyone around him.”

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