For the past two weeks, Katharine Keough has debated whether to go back to the daily regimen that helped make her a swimmer with national caliber credentials. This week she planned to give it another try.
Keough, a senior and captain of the W.T. Woodson High School swim team, quit swimming three weeks ago in an attempt to evaluate just how much she was in love with the sport. The affair has lasted five years and dominates her life.
Keough became a victim of what most championship swimmers face. Unlike most high school sports that require about an hour-and-a-half of practice a day and make things interesting with two or three games a week, swimming is a grind.
Keough's average day in Fairfax started at 4:30 a.m. so she could make 5:15 practice for the Solotar Swim Club. From there she went to school and would be in the weight room or at an after-school activity until heading to 5 p.m. practice for either the swim club or the Woodson team. She would get home about 8:30 for a quick dinner and two hours of homework.
"It kind of wore me out. I felt like a pressure cooker," said Keough, who amazingly is also expected to graduate as valedictorian of her class with an average (including achievement bonus points) of over 4.0. "I finally just couldn't go back. I had to take some time off. I found my disposition was out of whack -- I was yelling at everybody and I'm not like that. Something had to give, and it wasn't going to be school."
Keough's case is not that unusual. To even come close to her achievements, which included reaching the prestigious Junior National meet last year in the butterfly stroke, swimmers give up their lives to the pool. Unfortunately, of all the country's serious swimmers, including thousands in Northern Virginia, every four years only three in each event will make the Olympic team.
"What happens to so many of them, and I think happened to Katharine, is they reach a plateau where they are practicing every day and their times don't improve," said Sue Kunihiro, the adviser to the Woodson team, the area's best and loser of only one dual meet in 14 years. "Some get to the point where their bodies can't go any faster. They will go back to the pool every day for maybe a year trying to improve by a hundredth of a second. They give up an awful lot, but to just about all of them, it is worth it. It gives them a purpose every day."
Sophomore Steve Gibney, who last year had the third fastest national time for his age group in the breast stroke, said what most swimmers miss is sleep.
"When I come home, I usually do a little homework and go to bed," said Gibney. "I've gotten used to being tired all the time. In class, people look at you like you look dead. I wanted to quit because it takes so much time, but I stuck with it because I'm good at it, and I've already put in so many years. And my parents say, 'If you are going to quit, you are going to be doing a lot of work around the house.' I would rather swim."
Kunihiro's daughter, sophomore Cindi, recently cut back to swimming just for Woodson, which requires only three afternoons of her time a week. She wanted to concentrate more on soccer, where she stars and travels to tournaments across North America with the Braddock Road Galaxies. The lesser swimming commitment has been a great relief.
"Now I can sleep late and I have so much more free time," said Cindi. "Before, I couldn't stay out late because I had to get up so early. When I would get asked out, I had to say 'No,' because I had to be asleep early. The guys would eventually get mad because it seemed like I could never go out.
"Now I can get my homework done, watch television and do things like go to high school basketball games," said Kunihiro, who says the free time has enabled her to have a boyfriend for the past seven months and will give her a chance to get a driver's license when she turns 16 soon.
Keough, who is also president of her school's 285-member chapter of the National Honor Society, said she has never believed she missed out on anything. Much of her social life came from swimming. And the daily practice meant fulfillment every day, which is why awaited the urge to return.
"For me, the meets weren't the big part," said Keough. "I liked conquering the practice and getting through it each day. I think that's a pretty good accomplishment in itself."