A year ago, Damascus High School swimming and diving coach Kevin Beabout might have been slightly nervous to see Ryan O'Leary yawning on the pool deck before a big race, but it has become quite apparent the act typically associated with fatigue is a telltale sign the current sophomore breaststroker is ready to go.
“No matter how nervous he is, he has this inner channel when he's about to race, through whatever mechanism, he's relaxed when he goes up there,” Beabout said. “Some kids get hyper, [O'Leary] stands up, yawns and then is ready for his race.”
Beabout, and even O'Leary himself, had no idea just how ready the 15-year-old was for his 100-yard breaststroke race at the Washington Metropolitan Interscholastic Swimming and Diving championships Feb. 8. The 6-foot-1 sophomore had already surprised himself by setting the Swarmin' Hornets program record in the event with a 1 minute, 0.66 second performance at divisionals the previous week, but in order to truly compete in a meet of Metros' caliber he'd have to drop below a minute.
O'Leary did that and more. A personal-best (58.69 seconds) swim put him in fifth place in one of the country's fastest high school championships, just .06 seconds out of fourth place and the only non-Class 4A or private school swimmer to finish in the top 20 and score in the event. O'Leary also finished 14th in the 100-yard freestyle, the highest of any sophomore. His breaststroke swim earned him his first junior nationals cut.
The breakout performance, which Beabout said instilled his young swimmer with an entirely new level of confidence, catapulted O'Leary into a historical postseason. O'Leary followed up Class 3A/2/1A West Region wins in the 100-yard breaststroke and 200 individual medley — he set a meet record in the latter — with Damascus' boys' first-ever state titles in both events. The Hornets' only other state win was 2013 graduate Hedda Boege's first-place finish in the girls' 500 freestyle at last year's state championship. O'Leary finished in a three-way tie for first in individual scoring at both regionals and states with 40 points.
“It's cool to be able to put [Damascus] back on the map, not many people know what's at Damascus,” O'Leary said. “It felt really good to [do well at Metros] and winning those two state titles got me really excited about the future.”
If the strides O'Leary took just between his freshman and sophomore years are any indication of what lies ahead, there is quite a bit to look forward to, Beabout said. O'Leary has always had extremely technically sound, textbook strokes, the Damascus coach said. But a year ago, as he adjusted to his 6-1 frame, he struggled to get below 1:02 — he failed to reach the finals at Metros with a 1:03.23.
As O'Leary continues to get stronger — he is young even for his grade — his great pull-kick timing will be even more productive. Beabout said he wouldn't be surprised to see O'Leary at the top of the Washington, D.C. area by the end of his high school tenure.
This breakout winter has already garnered attention from a community more geared toward football, Beabout said, and his work ethic has motivated teammates to pursue year-round swimming opportunities, which is sure to benefit the Swarmin' Hornets program. O'Leary, rather shy a year ago, has begun to embrace his role as a leader and come out of his shell a bit more among his teammates this season, another aspect of the young sophomore Beabout said he looks forward to watching evolve.
“[O'Leary's] stroke was always beautiful, he has a very technical stroke,” Beabout said. “Now he's growing into his body, he's building muscle and really starting to get lean and filling out into his figure. I can't wait to see what is going to happen in the next two years, he's going to put on so much muscle, it's coming. ... His reach, his stroke is really textbook, his head position, the speed, the degree with which he places his arm out in front of him to get the maximum pull. Someone needs to videotape him underwater and be like, 'This is how you're supposed to swim breaststroke.'”