By Sara Jhong
As the fall sports season rolls around, two girls in particular are gearing up for one of the most competitive years of girls varsity swimming yet. With their caps and goggles in hand, both girls are in the pool training six days a week and up to three hours a day between the Rebels varsity team and their own club teams. Both girls have big dreams of qualifying for the State Championships in November and becoming finalists in the County and Division Championship meets along the way. But these aspirations are ones that so many other swimmers have in mind as well, so what makes these two girls different? For starters, they aren’t even in high school yet.
Eighth graders Hayden Wong and Kaitlyn Liu are the only two middle-school student athletes competing with the varsity girls swim and dive team this year. Despite their ages, the two don’t need any help when it comes to winning races and qualifying for meets. Only five meets into the season, Wong and Liu have already qualified for the Division and County Championships and are ranked within the top 20 for their qualifying events, placing higher than many of their Conference One high-school counterparts. But it is no surprise that the girls are more than qualified for varsity despite being in middle school. Wong and Liu have been swimming competitively since they were nine and six, respectively, and are top swimmers on the team.
Wong began swimming for the varsity team when she was only a seventh grader, and despite being younger than her teammates and having little experience being on a varsity team, she still ended her first season having competed in the Division and County Championship meets: elite competitions that even some of the most experienced swimmers do not qualify for. As she looked back on her first season, Wong said that she wanted to join the varsity team for the new challenges she would encounter. “[I wanted] an opportunity to compete with older, more experienced swimmers,” she said. After racing against the fastest girls in the county last season, Wong made the most of the opportunity given to her, and her aspirations for the 2019 season have only grown since her last varsity race.
Wong is also joined this year by Liu, who is new to varsity swimming but very familiar with the world of competitive swimming outside of school. Following in the footsteps of her two older brothers who swam for the boys varsity team and her mother who was a professional swimmer, Liu sought out the challenge of competing with older girls because she “felt like the high school team would be more competitive and more of a challenge for [her] than the middle school team.” At a recent meet, Liu outtouched Garden City senior and three time state qualifier Alana Brown in the 200 Meter Freestyle to come in first ahead of five other high-school girls, proving that not only does she have what it takes to be on varsity, but also that she has what it takes to win for herself and her fellow Rebels.
While both swimmers have talent in the water, joining varsity swim has had its challenges for the two girls. During her season as a seventh grader, Wong battled a mild case of bronchitis throughout the season. But despite her illness, Wong trained hard and raced well in the pool, often coughing so hard at the end of her races that she would burst into uncontrollable laughter. She refused to let sickness influence her first season, and by her last varsity race, Coach Jim Burns remarked at how well Wong fit in with the rest of the team and how much heart she put into her races.
Liu found it somewhat challenging to make friends with girls who are all much older she is. Going into the 2019 season, Liu remarked out how she didn’t know many of her teammates and how she was apprehensive when getting to know everyone. But by the second meet, Liu discovered how supportive her team was when she saw her teammates, even ones she did not know well, cheering her on from the end of the pool and congratulating her when she got out of the water. “The best part of joining varsity swim early has been getting to see how everyone on the team is so supportive of each other,” Liu said with a smile.
With the season underway, Liu and Wong swim each race with specific goals in mind. Both swimmers are training hard to qualify for the State Championship meet held in Ithaca in November. “I definitely want to make states—I think I have a good shot at making the 200 IM (individual medley). I also want to make A finals at counties,” said Liu with confidence.
This season, Wong also intends to go out for a state qualifying time in the 100 meter breaststroke or the 200 IM. “It is a bit of a reach, but I am going to keep training hard and have a good mindset for the upcoming meets,” said Wong.
The two, performing well despite their age and experience, are on track to becoming contenders in the upcoming championship meets. With the help of coaches Jim Burns and Dan Disalvo, the two middle school student athletes are preparing for a whole new line of racing. “I just can’t wait to see what happens next,” said Wong.