Friday, Jan. 9, 2009

Swimming’s fast Spak attack

Rededicated Walter Johnson senior gets ready for Division I

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Children think they know everything. And when Walter Johnson senior swimmer Elena Spak was younger, she was certain she didn’t want to be a swimmer. She’d make up any excuse to get out of practice.

Now 17, Spak originally started swimming at age 7 with the Tilden Woods Montgomery County Swim League summer team and year-round at age 8 with the Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club. After a two-year hiatus from the sport between the ages of 9 and 11, her attitude changed completely — Spak thrust herself back into year-round swimming at age 11, and hasn’t eased up since.

Nor has she wanted to.

‘‘I don’t know why, I just didn’t like it,” Spak said. ‘‘Whenever my mom was driving to practice I would always be like, ‘I’m sick, I can’t go.’ But now I love it. I did Tilden Woods every summer and realized if I wanted to stay up with the kids I was going to have to swim year round. And once I started practicing more, I got so much faster.”

Now one of the fastest swimmers in the Washington Metropolitan area, and the country, she signed a National Letter of Intent Nov. 14 to swim on scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh.

Spak, part of RMSC’s National Training Group, has been a standout for Walter Johnson since her freshman year. She won three events at last year’s county meet — the 50- and 100-yard freestyles and 200 freestyle relay — and finished in the top three of four events at the Metropolitan Area Swimming and Diving championships.

She looks to have an even bigger breakout in 2007-08, hoping to pick up her first Metros title and help the Wildcats improve on last year’s fourth-place finish at the area’s biggest meet. This past Saturday, Spak was part of the Walter Johnson 400-yard mixed medley relay that set a county record of 3 minutes, 13.10 seconds. The previous record, set by the Wildcats in 2005, was 3:13.87.

Spak’s slight build is deceiving. She’s innately athletic and boasts natural ability, as well as a strong work ethic, a lethal combination. She’s built a lot of muscle within her small frame, enabling her to power through the water.

‘‘Elena works extremely hard,” Walter Johnson coach Jamie Grimes said. ‘‘Even when she’s tired, she’s constantly working: doing drylands, weights. ... She doesn’t have the height, but she makes up for it with speed and tempo. I think she’s going to have a great senior year.”

A bout with mononucleosis just after last year’s Metros hindered Spak’s training regimen; she’s used to training about 25 hours per week. It originally slowed her stroke speed and hurt her endurance, but she has felt like herself again in recent weeks. And that’s a scary notion for her competitors.

Spak is looking forward to the consistently high level of competition she’ll face in Division I college swimming next year. Though she has already established herself among the top-tier swimmers in the country, qualifying for senior nationals three times, her swimming career is still young.

There’s so much more she’s keen on accomplishing, including Olympic Time Trials and NCAAs. Pittsburgh will provide a good working atmosphere for her to continue to grow.

‘‘I’m so excited to start training and get focused on sprints specifically,” Spak said. ‘‘It’s going to be so much more intense. They have a specific weight training program and do a lot more running. They have mirrors on the bottom of the pool so you can see yourself. And there are windows in the water so your coaches can see you. It’s all about tweaking the little things you need. I can’t wait.”

Spak, who admittedly still finds it hard to get motivated for 4:45 a.m. practices three times a week, has come a long way since faking sick to get out of practice. Now a total workhorse, she thrives off a good training session. And it’s evident in her long list of accomplishments.