By Jeff Nations
FRONT ROYAL -- Quinn Blankenship couldn't have known she'd one day be considered something of a trailblazer for Randolph-Macon Academy's swim team.
Just an eighth-grader at the time, Blankenship was simply taking the opportunity to join another swim team and do what she's been doing most of her life. That she was younger than virtually all of her competition had nothing to do with it.
"I had one middle school swimmer my first year as coach three years ago and it was Quinn Blankenship," R-MA coach Michael Williams said. "I think because of Quinn and because of the kids, last year when Quinn was a freshman that increased to five. I think Quinn doing as well as she did opened things up for a lot of other middle schoolers to at least dream. And even though they might not have had the actual skill, they at least had the idea and the goal, which is really cool."
"This year because of Quinn and some of the other things we're doing, and the joy and fun people have seen as well as the competition, we have 15 middle school swimmers. We now have a lot of little girls at the middle school that want to swim because they see what this person has done and what she has the ability to do."
Now a sophomore, Blankenship is being counted on to provide even more leadership for the Yellow Jackets this season. Although she's still an underclassmen, Blankenship is probably the team's most experienced swimmer. Blankenship started competitive swimming at age 4 with then Valley Swim Team Phoenix (now Gators) based out of Signal Knob Recreation Center in Strasburg. Blankenship began simply by tagging along to watch her older brother, Tanner, practice with the team. About six months later, she was his teammate.
"My mom told me I had never been in the pool before without floaties, but they just threw me in and I knew how to do the strokes because of watching my brother," Blankenship said. "That's part of the reason it's stuck with me so well because I learned so early."
So even as an eighth-grader making her varsity debut, Blankenship was a seasoned competitor through her USA Swimming experience. Williams knew that much from the start, but he was in for at least one surprise that first year.
"At first we didn't know if we were just looking at an IM (individual medley) and a specific stroke swimmer," Williams said. "That's pretty much what we focused on when Quinn was in the eighth grade -- we were looking at IM and specific stroke. But then it turned into, 'Wait a minute. This kid is a distance swimmer.'
"We still use Quinn for IM because she's got the ability and mechanics in all the competitive strokes, but it was evident that she was a distance swimmer. I don't know when we figured that out, but thank God we did because she's a very gifted distance swimmer."
Blankenship made an immediate impact in both the 500-yard freestyle and 200 IM in her eighth grade year, making the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association (VISAA) state meet in both events. Blankenship was 23rd in the 200 IM (2 minutes, 31.78 seconds) and 24th in the 500 free (5:56.75).
Last year, Blankenship was an all-conference selection after winning the 500 free and taking third in the 200 IM at the Delaney Athletic Conference meet.
The 500 free remains Blankenship's favorite event, and the one she hopes will help her earn a top-eight finish at this season's VISAA state meet.
"I have good stamina and it gives me more opportunity to pass people,," Blankenship said. "I know ever since I swam it the first time, I was like, 'Hey, I can slow down a little bit and not get yelled at.' I don't slow down. I just keep going and I like the feeling after I finish swimming."
Blankenship is in the minority among swimmers when it comes to the 500 free, generally one of the less popular events to race. Even Blankenship will admit to a bit of envy toward sprinters -- not for the brevity of their events, but rather the style with which they compete.
"I'm jealous how they almost fly through the water, almost float right on top of the water," Blankenship said. "For me, it's like dragging and you just keep on going."
Blankenship has cooled a bit on the 200 IM, and said she's hoping to improve in another individual event to pair with her 500 as she aims to return to the state meet.
Like her older brother and erstwhile teammate Tanner -- the reigning Northern Virginia Daily boys swimmer of the year who is now a freshman at William and Mary -- Quinn Blankenship takes an active role in working with her teammates as a sort of unofficial assistant coach.
"I know that deep down they realize I want them to do better, even though they might see me as mean," Blankenship said. "I'm not mean, but if they see me as mean or because I'm younger than some of the people I help coach they may think I'm a know-it-all, but in reality it's just because I've been doing this so long I actually know what I'm talking about."
Blankenship said her less experienced teammates at R-MA have been receptive to her critiques and pointers in the pool.
"We all get along pretty well," Blankenship said. "We don't argue. We don't try to drown each other."
Despite her expanded role helping coach the younger Yellow Jackets, Blankenship is focused on dropping her own times this year. One of those events will be the 500 free -- as the other, that remains to be seen.
"There are many areas in all of the strokes I can definitely improve on and get faster," Blankenship said.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>