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Sam Steele swims freestyle at a recent practice before the state meet. Photo by Jessa Pease.
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Nicole Smith, Sam Steele, Anna Moers and Jason Hsu practice at the Birmingham CrossPlex.
A swim season of hard work and dedication has paid off for three Hoover residents as they prepare for the junior national meet in March.
Birmingham Swim League competitors Sam Steele, Nicole Smith and Racheal Cunningham will take their events to one of the top 25 meets in the country for swimmers 18 years and under. Athletes from all over the country will participate in the meet, but BSL coach Mike Davidson says his swimmers have a great shot at finals.
“It’s fun because where we are now, we’ve got a lot of progress that can be made,” Davidson said. “For me it’s fun because I know we can get there. We can become a lot better and place a lot higher. To me it’s exciting because there’s really only one way to go, and that’s up.”
Leading the way is BSL’s top swimmer, Cunningham, who was named No. 3 in the nation in the 100 breaststroke for her age group. The 15-year-old Spain Park student will be swimming the 100 and 200 breaststroke. She swims an impressive 1:03.55 100 breast versus the 1:06.39 qualifying time, and her 200 sits at 2:15.89 against the 2:23.29 qualifying time.
With times like these, it’s no wonder the Olympic Trials are on her mind. On top of her workouts with BSL, she has a dry-land routine she completes on her own every day.
“She’s really talented. She’s the real deal,” Davidson said. “She can be top 8. She’s got the ability but USA swimming has gotten so fast and there’s so much depth. Everything has to go right, but she should make top 8.”
Previous to the NCSA Junior Nationals in Orlando taking place March 17-21, Cunningham also competed in the Irvine Junior Nationals where she placed in the finals in the 100 breast, the Grand Prix Arena USA Swimming event in Minnesota and the National Championships in Greensboro.
Steele also joined Cunningham at those meets. Davidson describes the home-schooled 16-year-old as “another one who is the real deal.”
“Right now I feel pretty good. I’m excited for the future,” Steele said. “I try to keep in mind that it’s not all me. I couldn’t get there on my own. I have to remember that (Davidson) got me there and my coach before him.”
He said he feels comfortable and confident in his list of events, which are well above the various qualifying times. He’ll be swimming the 100, 200 and 500 freestyle, along with the 100 butterfly. His 100 free time is at 46.80 against the 47.09 qualifying time and his 200 sits at 1:39.29 versus the national qualifying time of 1:43.09. Just as impressive are his times for the 500 free and the 100 fly. He swims a 4:28.66 500 free, whereas the qualifying time is 4:39.59, and his 100 fly time is 50.51 versus the 51.89 qualifying time.
Davidson said he’s confident in how Steele will perform at the national meet. Probably his most improved Hoover swimmer who has qualified for the national meet is Smith, who will be swimming the 100 and 200 backstroke.
“She had some growing issues with her back when she was younger, and she’s just at (age) 15,” Davidson said. “Now she’s been able to work a lot more and she’s doing times she hasn’t done in a year and a half to two years. It’s really exciting. She’s really motivated and really into it.”
Smith competed in the Grand Prix Arena USA Swimming event in Minnesota with both Cunningham and Steele. In that meet she reached the national cut for this junior national meet.
“I’m really excited (for the races),” Smith said. “I’m more of a 200 back swimmer. I like more of the mid-distance stuff, so I’m really looking forward to it. Mike and Brian [Wrighton] are new coaches and I’m really liking their training.”
Davidson said the Hoover High School student has a mechanically beautiful backstroke and that she has a shot to make it to finals at the national meet. Her 100 backstroke time is 57.53 against the 57.99 qualifying time, and her 200 back stands at 2:04.80 versus a qualifying time of 2:05.99.
Overall, Smith feels prepared for the meet.
“This is the first time I’ll be going to this meet, and it’s really my first big meet,” Smith said. “I’m excited to see how I do. I’m hoping to make finals and drop time in a bunch of events.”