Oakdale High School senior Tia Graham tried softball once. That was a self-proclaimed disaster.
“I can't run. I can't throw,” she said.
It's a good thing those skills are irrelevant in swimming. Graham found her niche at age 6 and there has been little reason to look elsewhere.
Graham said she understands why attending a swim meet would be the last thing on the average person's 'to do' list. She just doesn't agree with that sentiment.
“It might not necessarily be the most thrilling experience, but races can be super exciting if they're close. It's so fun to see a race come down to milliseconds. [Swimmers] touch the wall and then there is this second of silence until you see who won and then everyone screams,” Graham said.
It was her undeniable passion for the sport that made then first-year Oakdale swimming and diving coach Jared Minetola's decision to name her a team captain last winter a no-brainer, he said.
Then, much to his surprise, he found out Graham was just as new to the team as he was — her family moved to Frederick County from Pittsburgh over the summer.
“That says it all right there. I knew her for two weeks, I had no idea she was new to the school. Just by her work ethic and how she presented herself to the team, she could've been a four-year starter. That's what I thought she was,” Minetola said. “She was like, 'You know I'm new.' I was like, 'Yes. But you're still captain.'”
This year, Minetola allowed the team to vote for its captains. Graham was selected again, telling of the impact she's had on Oakdale's young, but fast-growing program in a short amount of time.
Graham finished second behind 2012 Gazette Swimmer of the Year Claire McIlmail (formerly of Urbana) in the 100-yard butterfly and was part of two top-three relays at last year's county championships where Oakdale finished second behind the current five-time defending champion Hawks, but certainly gave them a scare.
She then earned the fifth most individual points (31) at the Class 3A/2A/1A West Region meet to lead Oakdale to a second-place finish; the Bears took third at the state championship.
Graham is on pace to contend for several events at this year's county championship, Minetola said, and still undefeated, the Bears could be the favorite to take home the program's first girls title — Oakdale's boys won their first county title last winter.
“I definitely think [Graham] could win a couple titles. Everything about her says county champion, from her natural ability to how hard she works and her leadership. I hope all the hard work pays off, if anyone deserves [to win], it's [Graham],” Minetola said.
The butterfly is that one stroke in swimming that few young children want to take, Minetola said. It takes a lot of effort.
But it seems that was part of the appeal for Graham.
“It's always been [a stroke] not many people like. It's difficult, all strokes are hard. But I've always had a little knack for it. I feel like I'm more in control of the water,” Graham said.
Graham has fantastic technique, Minetola said. That, coupled with her tremendous drive, quickly catapulted her to the top of county swimming.
“I think from a younger age, butterfliers are always up for a challenge. When you're younger, no one is up for the butterfly. But [Graham] sees a challenge, accepts it and wants to rise to the occasion,” Minetola said.
Like many top swimmers who dedicate hours each week to arduous training, there have been times, Graham admitted, that she got tired of challenging herself. But while few people outside of the relatively small, close-knit swimming community can understand it, she is always pulled back to the water.
“I think that people might not understand [swimming]. But I like it because you do work really hard in the pool, but everyone is working with you,” Graham said. “I honestly don't know what I'd do without swimming.”