By Jeff Nations - firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- Among all the memories and experienced he accumulated throughout a standout senior season swimming for Millbrook High School, there is perhaps one moment Thomas Northrup will treasure above all others.
It came not during the Group AA state swimming meet, where Northrup excelled; not at regionals, where he posted a personal-best time in one of his events; not at the Northwestern District meet, site of two district championship swims.
Those might have been more important in the grand scheme, and certainly were the performances which secured The Northern Virginia Daily's 2011-2012 Boys Swimmer of the Year award for Northrup.
Instead, it was at a meet long before that where Northrup experienced that "moment." Competing in the Erik Meinelschmidt Memorial Pentathlon at the Hagerstown (Md.) YMCA, Northrup unleashed the swim of his life in the 100-yard butterfly. Entering the meet with a time in that event consistently in the 59-second range, Northrup delivered an astonishing time drop to win in 56.51 seconds.
As Northrup looked across the pool toward the deck, he saw Pioneers coach Eileen Span look down at her watch, look up to find him in the water, and mouth just a single word: "Wow."
That was just for starters, as Northrup also dropped major time in his 100 breaststroke that same day. In one afternoon, Northrup's whole season shifted in a new direction. Primarily a 200 individual medley swimmer going into that meet, Northrup came out as a state qualifier in the 100 fly and 100 breast.
"In the water, those races just really felt like they clicked," Northrup said. "When I was in, I felt golden and I felt really powerful. It was a race where when I finished and I talked to the coaches afterward, there wasn't so much criticism as there was saying, 'What more can we do with it? What other goals can we break?'
"It was inspiring to me in a way. It just really was so gratifying and it was a driving force in making me see what I could continue to do in both of those events."
Plenty, as Northrup and the Pioneers soon discovered this season. Focused on his new-found events, Northrup coincidentally filled two potential soft spots in the Pioneers' lineup.
"Everything that he did fit quite well for our team," Span said. "That's how our boys got where they got. I think that having him in those two events was just perfect. It was exactly what we needed, and he still had the energy to do relays, too."
Northrup, whose previous experience in the 200 IM included a trip to the state meet as a junior, wasn't quite through with that event. At the Northwestern District meet held in Jim Barnett Park's indoor meter pool, he revised his former specialty to secure a district championship with a winning time of 2:25.34.
"For me, that's kind of a race that I really like," Northrup said of the 200 IM. "Obviously I didn't make it to states in [200 IM] this year -- I made it last year -- so I guess not quite as good comparatively at it, but I just love the race. I love that you get to switch muscle groups a little bit. Even though it's longer, it doesn't seem quite as exhausting."
Northrup, who teamed with Michael Span, Nick Patton and Joe Patterson to win a district title in the 200-meter medley relay in the first event of the night, was feeling a bit tired for the 100 fly.
"My arms were dead, I guess from the IM, and I was about even with Sam Stearns from Handley for the whole race," Northrup said. "Then on the last 25 I knew I had to kick it into gear. That was probably the most exhausting 100 fly that I swam this season, even more so than when I got my best times. I was really expending all my effort in that last 25."
He won the district title, and also helped the Pioneers' 200 free relay to a second-place finish as Millbrook's boys won the district championship.
Northrup got dropped a bit of time with a third-place finish in the 100 fly (56.42) at the Region II meet the following week, and got back to competing in the 100 breast (he finished eighth) as he prepped for the state meet.
As it turned out, Northrup had one last impressive time drop in reserve. Competing in the 100 fly preliminaries at the Christiansburg Aquatic Center, Northrup sliced nearly another second off his top time with an 11th-place finish in 55.68. More importantly, it earned him a return trip for Saturday's finals.
"On the first day of states, for fly I got my best time, another personal record," Northrup said. "The second day, I was super-excited about being able to come back for the second day. The second day, I was hoping to make it through the race alive, which I did and I got another personal best, which was also really gratifying."
Northrup, who had a 23rd-place state finish in the 100 breast (1:05.52), posted his best time in his last race, a a 55.65 for 13th in the 100 fly.
"I knew Thomas was going to be the one who was going to be our leader," Span said. "I've known Thomas for eight years. I've seen him go from being a little Winchester Country Club swimmer to four years on the Millbrook team."