By Jeff Nations
FRONT ROYAL -- Tanner Blankenship can admit the truth now. After a summer of precious little time in the water to prepare for his senior season at Randolph-Macon Academy, Blankenship was sweating hard over how he'd perform his first time out for the Yellow Jackets.
Had he lost a half-second? A full second? Even more?
It's one of the lesser-considered benefits of swimming -- no one can see you sweating when you're immersed in all that water, but Blankenship certainly was before that first meet at Fredericksburg Academy. Right off the bat, he had to face talented Alec Morin of St. Michael the Archangel in the 100-yard butterfly.
"I was a little nervous going into that one because I had only been in the water, I think five times before then," Blankenship said. "Before that meet was my first week in the water, really, so I was nervous going into that one wondering what the competition would be like. But I got through it."
Blankenship did much more than "get through it" as a senior, providing the scoring punch in meets and the technical know-how in practice that helped the Yellow Jackets have one of their finest seasons ever. A truly complete leader, Blankenship is The Northern Virginia Daily's 2012-2013 Boys Swimmer of the Year.
R-MA coach Michael Williams, in his second year coaching the program, freely admits that he's been learning the sport on-the-job since stepping into the void as coach. Last year, Blankenship served as his unofficial assistant coach. R-MA added former collegiate swimmer Maureen Sadler to the staff this year, but Blankenship still did more coaching than swimming at the Yellow Jackets' practices this season.
"I think that helping other kids with their strokes helps me notice what I'm doing," Blankenship said. "If I see someone doing something wrong, then the next time I get in the pool it might be, 'I'm doing that.' So I was able to fix my stroke there and I was able to do morning swim practices. That was really helpful."
Blankenship's accepting attitude toward Williams helped keep R-MA's program afloat. A former collegiate baseball player with little technical knowledge of swimming when he took the job, Williams credits Blankenship with keeping the team headed in the right direction every day in practice and at meets.
"When you've got someone like Tanner that is willing to not only help you, but have the humility of understanding and respecting that you're still the coach, that's an incredible situation to be in," Williams said. "It would've been really easy for Tanner to have come in and said, 'OK, I know this guy doesn't know anything so I'm just going to show him what I know and I'm not going to pay attention, I'm not going to respect that. I'm going to show these kids who's really in charge.'
"That was never the way he was. He was always, 'This man is the coach. You're going to respect him and we're going to help him learn how to do this.'"
For his part, Blankenship made it a point to thank Williams for basically saving R-MA's swimming program by taking over as coach. Williams has been a quick learner, too, enough so that Blankenship can now gently poke fun at his coach's early days running the program.
"I think Mr. Williams should get the most improved award on the team because the first day he came in, and he told us to 'step up on the podiums.' The starting blocks, he referred to them as podiums," Blankenship said. "At the end of this season, he was actually helping kids with their technique and he knew what he was talking about."
Blankenship has never been one to need much guidance, on the technical aspects or the work ethic required to succeed. That much has long been evident. Just how far he could advance this season was the real question.
The Delaney Athletic Conference meet provided a clue that Blankenship was ready to finish with a flourish. At the DAC meet, Blankenship won both the 200 individual medley (2:09.78) and the 100 butterfly (personal-best time of 54.69) and helped R-MA's 200 medley relay to a season-best 1:53.16) to finish second. He also helped R-MA's 400 free relay earn a second-place finish. For his efforts, Blankenship was named the DAC Championship Swimmer of the Meet for the second straight year.
"I was really thankful to get that award," Blankenship said. "That means a lot."
Blankenship had one meet to go, and again made the most of it. Competing in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association (VISAA) state meet in Richmond, Blankenship again came through with personal-best times. In the 200 IM, Blankenship posted a time of 2:05.98, nearly a second better than his seed time. For a short time, it looked as if he had made it to the finals as the 16th-place finisher in that event. But a swimmer who had initially been disqualified was reinstated, and that relegated Blankenship to the 17th spot -- just one out of the championship heat.
"It would've been a dream to get him into the finals in the IM, and we thought we had it," Williams said. "He time was really good -- I think he dropped about three 10ths of a second and we thought that was going to be enough to get into the finals."
Maybe it was a blessing in disguise, since Blankenship was able to concentrate on his one remaining event for the championship finals, the 100 butterfly. Again, he came through with a personal-best time of 54.24 to finish ninth in the state.
"It went well," Blankenship said. "I was really pleased with the results at states and I was able to drop a good amount of time, considering how much I'd put into it because I wasn't able to train until swimming season started."
Blankenship also had a major role in R-MA's most surprising result of the state meet, when he joined Peter Jin, Cole Johnston and Cheng Qian in the 400 free relay. That group dropped a staggering 10.42 seconds off its best time to nearly reach the finals.
"We were joking on the way down that we had to drop 10 seconds to even come close to being competitive at the state level to get in the finals," Williams said. "The top 16 make the finals -- we were seeded 31st and we wound up coming in 17th."
Uncertain about his future in swimming, Blankenship is now determined to keep pushing in the pool at the collegiate level. He still hasn't decided what school he'll attend next year, but Blankenship has definite plans to continue swimming.
"I decided that I do want to swim at the college level, and I think my success at the state meet is to show for that because I was able to drop a couple seconds off my times with relatively not very much practice and not much time to train," Blankenship said. "So I'm sure if I go to college and swim and get on a good training schedule that I'll drop a lot of time. I think it'll help me be more successful at college, too -- just school and swimming. It's good for time management, too, when you're busy. So I think that'll be a good thing for me."
Until then, Blankenship can reflect on a great finish to his high school career at R-MA.
"It was a good season," Blankenship said. "Pretty much everyone's goal was to have fun, and we all definitely had fun. The past two years have been especially fun, the best two years of swimming at R-MA."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>