By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
We interrupt this All-Empire article for a quick science lesson from Maria Carrillo swim coach Rick Niles.
“Swimming follows a law of physics,” Niles said. “It’s a displacement in the water, and speed is determined by length of the vessel. That’s why you see all these 6-5 swimmers — they’re bigger boats.”
In a field of aircraft carriers, Stefan Keller is a destroyer — an apt metaphor for a kid who did serious damage to the North Bay League competition as a senior this year. Keller stands 5 feet, 5 inches, tall enough to earn our Boys Swimmer of the Year award.
“He makes up for it with strength and technique,” Niles said. “Stefan maximizes that law of physics to the best it can be done.”
Keller is exceptionally versatile, too, a big benefit to the Maria Carrillo swim team. His top events were the 200-yard individual medley and the 100-yard breaststroke. He wound up swimming both at the North Coast Section championships, finishing 12th in the 100 IM (making it to the B final) and 19th in the 100 breast.
Once Keller had hit his NCS qualifying times in those events, though, Niles was able to plug him in where needed. By the end of his final high school season, Keller had swum the Redwood Empire’s second-fastest 200 freestyle and 100 butterfly of the year, third-fastest 100 backstroke, fourth-fastest 50 free and fifth-fastest 100 free. He also was part of two Pumas relay teams, the 200 medley and the 400 free, that finished in the top 25 at the section meet.
But Keller’s contributions to the team went even deeper. Though he did most of his training with Dan Greaves’ Neptune Swimming club, Kellar showed up every Friday to practice at Maria Carrillo, working closely with the Pumas’ less experienced swimmers.
Keller describes himself as “pretty quiet and reserved,” but acknowledges that his role as a leader of the Carrillo swim team helped bring him out of his shell.
“Especially the past couple years, I started to feel a lot more comfortable around my teammates, and I started to express myself a little more,” Keller said. “I think they were able to see I’m funny and weird.”
Niles was Keller’s first rec swimming coach, in the preteen program at Montecito Heights Health Club when Kellar was 7 or 8. Right away, the coach noticed the quiet boy who seemed to be in a class by himself.
“Stefan has a natural ability with turns and how he pushes off the wall,” Niles said. “He’s better and faster than most people. And he had that when he was 8 years old. He didn’t even have be taught. I said ‘do this,’ and he did it. The other kids didn’t quite get it.”
Niles said Keller is also really strong in his pull-downs, the portions of a race in which the swimmer leaves the wall and glides underwater.
Keller will continue the sport next year at Towson University in Baltimore. After Towson invited him on a recruiting trip last summer, Kellar did some research and found out the university offers a program in functional biology of animals, a pre-veterinary path that he had been looking for.
The Kellers live on the rural edge of Santa Rosa. There have always been a lot of animals around, and they fascinated Stefan from a young age.
“Sometimes I would think, ‘Wow, they’re really cool. I wonder what makes them able to do this,’ ” Keller said.
Again, back to the science of physical movement. Kellar plans to be the observer, but he could just as well be the specimen, considering the extent to which he is able to maximize his physical ability. Niles describes him as an incredible worker. Keller just sees himself as a kid who found the right medium.
“I always think water is a great equalizer,” he said.