Girls swimming: Stevenson's Song marshals unique skill set
Oddly, the moments in a swimming race which frequently determine the winner are the ones when the swimmers are not actually, by popular definition, swimming.
To be clear, they are still in the water and competing at these key moments.
But the motions that usually connote swimming -- arms pulling water, breathing -- are temporarily absent.
Immediately after the start of the race, and after every turn at the end of the pool, comes this crucial phase called the underwater.
And Rachel Song's non-aquatic athletic experience is serving her very well in these depths.
Song will compete in the 100-yard butterfly, the 100 backstroke and take two key relay legs as Stevenson races in the high school state meet at Evanston Township High School on Friday and Saturday.
Song's athletic background, before swimming came to dominate her life, was as a standout taekwondo competitor. She rose to the level of first-degree black belt, excelling in the sport along with younger brothers Joseph and Josh. Her parents, too, were immersed in martial arts, as mom Jeanette was also a taekwondo black belt and dad John was a karate black belt.
It turns out Rachel Song's martial arts skills helped her make huge gains as a swimmer.
After entering the water following the start of the race, Song is frequently among the last to surface and put her arms in motion. Likewise, after a turn, she'll stay submerged far longer than most competitors. In both cases, when she surfaces, she's the one out in front.
That's because she's able to hold her diminutive form in a supremely streamlined submerged state, all the while kicking furiously with a rapid-fire dolphin kick.
While just about every swimmer recognizes the importance of the underwater, only a handful really turn it into a tactical racing advantage.
Central to success in taekwondo are physical skills which translate very well to the starts and turns in swimming. The elevated kicks and spinning motions in taekwondo, for example, are an excellent dryland primer for learning to excel in your basic freestyle flipturn.
Rachel Song credits not only taekwondo but also Stevenson's training regimen for helping her get an edge.
"I didn't have a lot of dryland in my background before high school, and I think that made a big difference," she said. "And a lot of the stuff from taekwondo is definitely helpful -- flexibility, core strength for sure."
Stevenson coach Kevin Zakrzewski recognized Song's unique ability and worked with her to refine it. He says the best may still be ahead for Song, who is considering a swimming and studying future -- something in the medical field -- at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
"She has really exceptional underwaters, and the thing about that is, we're still really only about 8 or 9 months into fully exploring what they can do for her," Zakrzewski said. "Because of them, I think she's capable of some really unique things."
But first things first.
Song scored points for Stevenson individually at last year's state meet, placing 11th in the 100 fly. She also took legs on three relays and had the leadoff leg on the 10th-place 400 free relay.
This year, it's a slightly more ambitious state meet setup for Song. She's among the top seeds in the 100 fly, and will also race with a chance to score points in the 100 back. Those swims will be bracketed by Stevenson's medley relay, and again the 400 free relay -- which has earned the state's top seed heading into Friday's prelims.
Beyond Song and the relays, the Patriots have multiple opportunities to dent the scoreboard at state. Junior Iza Pelka is the top seed in the 200 free and the No. 2 seed in the 500 free.
As a measure of how well Stevenson performed at the sectional, in both her individual races, Song will have one of her own teammates seeded ahead of her -- senior Jessica Lenhart was sectional champ in the 100 fly and has the third-best state seed, while sophomore Ashley Carollo won the 100 back and has the fourth-best state seed.
Finishing as an individual sectional runner-up twice wasn't in Song's plan, but the bigger picture for Stevenson is looking brilliant.
After Stevenson's team sectional victory in on Saturday, though, Song was able to take a light-hearted, team-first view of the situation.
"I thought I was having a really good season," she said with a smile, "until today. But that's what happens sometimes, and especially on a team like this one.
"I'm not worried about it. At this point, I know we're all looking forward to state."