R-MA senior excels for swim team, but is focused on education
By Jeff Nations
FRONT ROYAL -- Randolph-Macon Academy swim coach Michael Williams has no doubt that Yellow Jackets senior Tanner Blankenship could swim at the collegiate level next year.
Blankenship might not want to, though, not if it means cutting into his study time as he continues his academic pursuits with the hopes of one day becoming a dentist.
Blankenship is good at swimming, no question about that, but the sport remains and will remain mostly something fun to do and a way to socialize.
"It's not a huge factor in picking my school," Blankenship said of a possible athletic scholarship. "If they have a good swimming program, that's great. But I really go to school to prepare me for a career.
"I know swimming can help me get into schools and offer scholarship money, but I don't really want to be tied down with all that because if they're paying you money to come to their school to swim, it almost puts swimming above academics and I don't want to make that sacrifice."
Williams supports Blankenship's focus on cracking books over shaving fractions of seconds off his swimming times.
"I think Tanner's got his priorities absolutely perfect -- it's school first, and good for him," Williams said. "... If Tanner wants to drop two seconds off his butterfly, he can do it. It's a matter of if it's that important to him or not. He can easily drop two seconds off his butterfly."
Blankenship already rates as the area's best in the 100-yard butterfly, based off last year's results. He led the area in that event and was second in the 200 individual medley, the two events he'll focus on again this year. Blankenship also earned the Delaney Athletic Conference Swimmer of the Meet honor last year and posted finishes of 13th in the 200 IM and 18th in the 100 fly at last year's Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association state meet.
Last year, Blankenship even helped Williams coach the youthful Yellow Jackets. With R-MA's smaller-than-normal pool -- 20 yards long by 12 yards wide, instead of the regulation 25 yards by 20 yards -- cramped quarters made it almost a necessity.
"Last year I would help out here and then go swim on my year-around team," Blankenship said. "And if frees up lane space, as well, because we have a pretty small pool. It's really narrow. It's hard for just one person to swim down the lane, let alone two people swimming in the opposite direction."
Williams, a former collegiate baseball player at VCU, was coaching swimming for the first time last year and had never competed in the sport. Having Blankenship on hand to offer advice on sets and training techniques for the rest of the team was invaluable for Williams. And that's not just talk -- when Williams' son, Alan, needed a coach to start competitive swimming, Blankenship got the call.
"He's my son's coach," Williams said. "My son is in the fifth grade and I pay him to teach my son because he's a great kid, he's very patient, he knows his stuff and he's not arrogant about it."
Blankenship even got to do a bit of coaching for his sister, Quinn, a talented swimmer who starred as an eighth-grader for R-MA last year and will look to lead the Yellow Jackets' girls squad this season.
"I have to say no, she probably doesn't want to be coached by her older brother," Blankenship said. "She doesn't need much coaching, anyway.
"She started swimming just a couple years after I started. She would watch me go to practice, watch me swim, and she got in the pool and knew exactly what to do just from watching me swim."
Blankenship does most of his training at Signal Knob Recreation Center as a member of Valley Swim Team Phoenix. He's been a member of that team for nine years, swimming all year long.
"That's been a huge factor to my success, all the time I've put into it," Blankenship said. "It's not like I'm trying to get ready for the season when I come in because I'm always ready because I swim year-round."
Of course, Blankenship still has to deal with R-MA's smaller pool for home meets. That can be an advantage in some ways, a disadvantage in others.
"One benefit of it is it keeps everybody close," Blankenship said. "You can look across the pool and see right where your teammates are. It's a disadvantage because there's a lack of space. And it gets very noisy in there, and that can be a challenge especially when you're trying to start and both teams are cheering. They have to tell them to quiet down so they can start."
Naturally, Blankenship is looking to improve his performances in both his individual events and help the Yellow Jackets return to the VISSA state meet in both the 200 free and 200 medley relay this season. But don't expect Blankenship to sweat it -- the pressure if just water off his back.
"I've never been one to really set times to reach," Blankenship said. "I've just gotten in the pool and done my best and see where it takes me.
"I don't like to get too stressed over the times or the fractions of a second that can make or break going to the next level. It's definitely something that I look at to see where I need to be, but I figure if I work my hardest in the pool and I give it my all in the race, there's nothing to really worry about."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>