Bryan Durazo was 9 years old when he first dipped into a swimming pool. He was holding on to a long foam tube and was under the watchful eye of his stepfather, Mike Pliuskaitis.
Now a rising junior at Heritage, Durazo long ago put the flotation device away. But as a swimmer for the Loudoun County-based Snowbird Aquatics team, he still listens to his stepfather's advice, and he doesn't get out of the pool for much.
Durazo has overcome chronic and painful ear infections to become one of the top male swimmers for the Snowbirds, a year-round competitive youth swimming program that Pliuskaitis has coached from its infancy.
Six Snowbirds swimmers, including Durazo, will compete this week in the National Club Swimming Association's junior national trials at Stanford University. It is the highest number of Snowbirds in the competition since the program's inception in 1998.
"First of all, I enjoy the swimming . . . and I like the team," said Durazo, who has had five separate surgeries over the past few years and who wears specially molded earplugs to help alleviate the chronic infections that still occur, albeit less often these days. "I don't think anyone could swim as much as we do if they didn't enjoy it as much as we do."
The Snowbirds spend a lot of time in the water. In a typical week of practice, most of the nearly 200 swimmers will train twice a day for a total of more than 24 hours a week.
It's a grueling format that builds endurance, a staple of the Snowbirds program reflected in the middle- to long-distance events in which the club's swimmers excel. Endurance is a highly valued quality that is often rewarded with gold medals in competition, but Pliuskaitis seems to value a swimmer's toughness just as much.
Durazo was twice honored with the Snowbirds' "Never Surrender" award, which is given to the swimmer who exhibits toughness through overcoming adversity.
Pliuskaitis also pointed out Leigh Psaris as a prime example of possessing grit. Psaris, who lives in Waterford and attends Madeira School, has been swimming for the Snowbirds since she was 10.
"She is one tough cookie . . . and I think her [skill] just comes from how bloody hard she practices," said Pliuskaitis. "Everyone on the team works hard, but she seems really able to drive herself a little bit more than the others."
Psaris and Dominion rising sophomore Lauren Ritter, the Virginia AA champion in the 500-yard freestyle, will be two of the Snowbirds' top individual female competitors and each will race in eight individual events.
Emily Kelly, the state champion in the 200 freestyle last winter during her junior season at Loudoun Valley, and Vikings junior Mary Teresa Boland, the Virginia AA winner in the 200 breaststroke, also will compete individually. Add in the team's relay specialist, 13-year-old Kayla O'Malley, and the Snowbirds will also be taking part in five relay events.
"I think we are going to do really well," said Psaris, who had qualified for junior nationals last years but said she did not compete because Pliuskaitis wanted her to further hone her skills. "Because we give it everything we've got."
Snowbird Aquatics club. Left, Lauren Ritter is the Virginia AA champ in the 500-yard freestyle.