Newburyport resident Caleb Bower admits he was a "subpar" swimmer when he joined the St. John's Prep swim team as a freshman in 2007.
Four years later, Bower is the captain of a team favored to win its sixth straight MIAA Division 1 state championship and has plans to join the Boston College swim team next fall.
"That's what makes the St. John's Prep program so unique," Bower said. "We truly believe everyone on the team is as important as the next guy. We're only as good as our weakest link. We're up and cheering for each kid's race, no matter who it is."
Bower and his teammates had plenty to cheer about last weekend, when they placed first among 45 teams at the LISCA Eastern States Invitational in Long Island, N.Y. Bower finished fifth out of 137 swimmers in the 100 breastroke (1:03.71) and 11th out of 224 swimmers in the 50 freestyle (23.43).
The Prep dominated the meet, which was a collection of schools mostly from New York. St. John's Prep swimmers set team records in six different events.
Bower did not mind that he was not one of the athletes to set a team record. He said Prep coach Anthony Padvaiskas stresses the team concept over individual accolades.
"We truly believe it's a team sport," Bower said. "We come out as a team, and we cheer each other on. When I started out, I was a subpar swimmer, but the leadership and hard work of the coaches make me the swimmer I am today."
Bower practices three mornings a week from 6 to 7:30 a.m. with his St. John's Prep teammates at the Danvers YMCA. He adds on another three or four workouts per week with the North Shore Sharks, based out of Beverly. He estimates he trains by swimming approximately 40,000 to 50,000 yards per week.
"It's eye-opening," Bower said. "I think a lot of teams are jealous of us because we finish our workouts that early in the morning. I'll always remember those early-morning practices at the Danvers Y."
St. John's Prep, which has not lost a dual meet in five years, will defend its state title Feb. 18 at Harvard's Blodgett Pool. Bower, who also serves as captain of the water polo team, has already been accepted to the BC Carroll School of Management.
"I hope to swim there; I've been in touch with the coach," Bower said. "I have to plan on being ready for next year's season. That's something I'm looking forward to, as well."