The final reward, for Sean Ellis and Annie Dawson, justified everything that preceded it.
They donated a significant chunk of their high school lives to a swimming team their closest friends hardly knew about. They slept little, awoke at 5 a.m., sacrificed weekends and worked their bodies long past exhaustion. They ate healthful foods and spent 20 hours each week in pools, sometimes swimming 7,000 yards in a single practice.
And all the while, they explained their motives to friends and family members who were sometimes curious, sometimes critical. Dawson's classmates never understood why she was busy; Ellis's friends once suggested he quit.
"It's never been glamorous. That's for sure," Ellis said. "Except for a small number of people, nobody really understands what we've been doing."
Now, at least, some people will appreciate it.
Next year, both swimmers will compete for major Division I colleges: Annapolis High School's Dawson at the University of Virginia and Northeast's Ellis at Syracuse University. It's a significant accomplishment for two high school swimmers who never even swam on high school teams. Because Anne Arundel County doesn't sanction swimming as a varsity sport, Dawson and Ellis competed only for the Naval Academy Aquatic Club, where they developed into top-level talents.
"They're probably two of the hardest-working kids I've ever worked with in terms of effort every day of the week," said Chris Villa, a coach for the aquatic club and also an assistant coach for Navy's women's swim team. "To be going to those type of colleges is pretty amazing. It's a major testament to their abilities."
It's also a function of their work ethic. During the school year, Dawson's days sometimes extended from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. -- much of that time devoted to swimming. She practiced with the aquatic club three mornings each week, from 5 to 7 a.m. After a quick shower and breakfast, she spent eight hours at school, then came home to do homework. At 6 p.m., she left again for swimming practice, which usually lasted until about 8:30.
Her summer is not much easier. She swims in the morning, coaches a community swim team in the afternoon and then practices again with the aquatic club.
"Sometimes I can get a little run down," Dawson said. "It's hard to keep going, going, going. Some days, I think I might have just collapsed or quit if I didn't slow down, miss a practice and take a nap."
Even before she committed to Virginia, Dawson's hard work was not without reward. A technically sound swimmer who excels in five events, Dawson earned a reputation as one of the county's best competitors. At the Maryland Swimming Committee Championship -- a statewide club competition that swimmers refer to as the state championships -- Dawson won the breaststroke and placed third in the 200-meter fly, fourth in the 400 and 200-meter individual medleys and fifth in the 1,000-meter freestyle.
"She just has great technique," said Tom Slear, Dawson's coach at the Aquatic Club. "She's one of those few swimmers that you can actually make corrections with. She can almost make a change on the spot. She has that sense of feel. That's why she's good in almost every stroke."
To hear Slear tell it, Ellis wasn't very good at any stroke until about a year ago. A late bloomer, he hardly merited interested from Division III schools after his sophomore year. In his junior year, though, he increased his pool work, tinkered with technique and watched seconds melt off his time.
He went from 2 minutes 9 seconds in the 200-meter backstroke to 2:02. He went from 1:01 in the 100-meter backstroke to 0:57. He went from 0:53 in the 100-meter freestyle to 0:50.9.
As his times dropped, his college options expanded. As a side trip on a visit to Ithaca College in New York, Ellis decided to drop by Syracuse. He fell in love with the campus, impressed the coaching staff and settled on his college destination.
"Everything just felt right," Ellis said. "If you had asked me a couple of years ago, I don't think I ever would have imagined myself swimming at a Big East school. I didn't know what I was going to do with my swimming for a while. I kind of thought it was a dead-end road -- until this happened."
Said Dawson: "I'm going to have to stop swimming sometime, but I want that to be as far off as possible. At least now I know I've got another four years."