Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Making a splash — Dedication is key to success for Soldotna swimmers

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

While Michael Phelps was busy breaking world records, racking up more gold medals than anyone in history and drawing increased attention to his sport at the Summer Olympics earlier this month, two swimmers from Soldotna were making waves of their own.

Olivia Bowen and Winter Heaven were in Gresham, Ore., Aug. 5 to 9 competing against about 760 other swimmers on 15 teams from 13 states in the 2008 Western Zone Swimming Championships, part of the nationwide club swimming program. The Silver Salmon swim team is one of the local branches of that program.

Bowen and Heaven were two of 20 swimmers representing Alaska at the competition. They posted some of the fastest times in the state in their age divisions to qualify for spots on the team.

But those times didn’t happen overnight. It’s taken years of training and hours-long practices, demonstrating commitment that is impressive to see in teenagers — especially with practices at 8 a.m. during the summer and before 6 a.m. during school.

“These two swimmers are successful because they’re so dedicated,” said Sohail Marey, coach of the Soldotna High School and Silver Salmon swim teams. Bowen and Heaven swim for both.

Marey said the SoHi team has optional morning practices starting before 6 a.m. three days a week, and Bowen and Heaven each only missed one last year. “And that speaks to their hard work,” he said.

“In our sport it’s so competitive … the truth is it’s very, very hard to be successful at the high school level if you do not swim in the off-season,” he said.

The Silver Salmon swim program gives them the opportunity to do so, with practice from 8 to 10 a.m. during summer weekdays. “That’s a big commitment for kids, and parents to get them there,” said Barbara Bowen, Olivia’s mother. Heaven said his parents decided he should start club swimming four years ago as a physical education credit for his home schooling program.

“We’re from the Pacific Islands, and I thought they needed to know how to swim,” said his mother, Viatoa Heaven.

Heaven took to swimming like a fish to, well, water.

“I like the social aspect of it, and going to different places and competing. And I found something I’m good at,” he said.

Now a sophomore, he’s already broken state records and is on pace to demolish more. During this year’s Zone competition, Heaven broke an 11-year-old state record of 1 minute, 1.76 seconds in the 100-meter butterfly with his time of 1:00.93. In the 50 freestyle he broke a 14-year-old record of 26.18 — twice.

On his first swim of the race he tied for eighth with a 26.24. In the swim-off he shaved his time down to 25.92. And in the final race he still was under the old state record with a 25.96

“I went there with the goal of breaking those records so I knew the times I had to beat, but I wasn’t focused on that while I was swimming,” Heaven said. “I beat the other person by two-tenths in the swim-off. I was very happy with that. It exceeded my expectations.”

The swim-off win more than exceeded his mother’s expectations — it almost exceeded her ability to stay calm. She stayed home from the Oregon meet with her other kids and tracked her son’s progress online.

“I was following every race on the computer and texting Barb (Bowen),” she said. “It’s the first meet I’ve missed and it was a big one.”

With the school year starting up, Heaven is switching from club swimming to the high school team.

He wants to beat the school and state record of 50.97 in the 100 butterfly, which both happen to be held by Lucas Petersen, SoHi swim team’s assistant coach. He also hopes to qualify for Junior Nationals next year, a precursor to the Olympics.

“For me, getting faster and improving in the sport,” is his goal right now, Heaven said.
Bowen, now a sophomore at SoHi, started club swimming when she was 6, because “her mom didn’t want her drowning up here with all that water,” said Barbara Bowen, Olivia’s mother.

Swimming got off to a turbulent start, but that may be a good sign.

“Michael Phelps used to scream when his head went under water,” Viatoa Heaven said.
“She did the same thing,” Barbara Bowen said of Olivia. “She thought her eyes were going to melt.”

Not only did they not melt, they got accustomed to spending long hours in the pool. Now they’re set on getting a swimming scholarship to college when she graduates, and some goals in the meantime.

She wants to break the school records in the 100 butterfly, 100 backstroke and 200 individual medley. At the Zone competition she got a third place on a relay team, and she’s previously held the state record for the 50 fly.

On one hand, Bowen swims because she enjoys it.

“You get to meet people and stuff, and the traveling’s fun. I don’t know, it’s just fun,” Bowen said.

At the same time, it’s a lot of hard work.

“I think there’s a misconception that swimming is an easy sport, it’s not,” Viatoa Heaven said.

“I think it is one of those hidden sports that most people don’t think exists in Alaska. With SoHi doing so well in football season, at times (swimming) gets overlooked, not intentionally.”

Phelps’ record-book performance at the Olympics may inspire other swimmers to take the sport as seriously as Bowen and Heaven have.

“I think people watch it now that didn’t,” Bowen said.

“It definitely brings more attention to the sport. There’s more high school swimmers joining the team, especially it being an Olympic year,” Heaven said.

Their attention will stay on the water, and on getting faster in it.

“We think that they did a great job, but they’re like, ‘eh.’ They’re never satisfied,” Viatoa Heaven said.

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