Veteran Qian preps for final season with R-MA

Randolph-Macon Academy senior Cheng Qian returns to lead the Yellow Jackets' boys swim team for the 2014-15 season. Photo courtesy of Cindy Rodney

FRONT ROYAL — Randolph-Macon Academy swimming coach Michael Williams vividly remembers the first time he saw current senior Cheng Qian swimming laps at the school’s indoor pool.

It was back in 2011, Williams’ first season as the Yellow Jackets’ swim coach — his first as a swimming coach anywhere, in fact. Williams was observing members of R-MA’s boys team as they took their turns in the water when someone caught his eye — Qian.

“All the sudden I just see this lightning bolt go through the water,” Williams recalled on Monday. “I’m like ‘where the heck did this come from and where’s it been all my life.’ It was my first year as coach, and immediately I knew ‘OK, I’ve got my star as an athlete.'”

But Williams also asked himself another question — what kind of kid was Qian?

The answer was initially a little difficult for Williams to gather. Qian, a native of Shanghai, China, spoke little English upon his arrival at R-MA as a freshman in 2011. Couple that with Qian’s soft-spoken nature, and Williams admits it was hard for the two to carry much of a conversation that first year.

But with the aid of some of Qian’s Chinese teammates, Williams learned all he needed to know about who Qian was as a person. Soon, Qian, alongside former Yellow Jackets standout Tanner Blankenship, was helping Williams conduct workout routines and design practices for the rest of R-MA’s boys swim team.

“As far as Cheng, behavior’s never been an issue with him,” Williams said. “He’s always been a compliant kid. He’s quiet. You wouldn’t even know he was there if you didn’t see this lightning bolt running through the water. Having said that, I’ve never asked Cheng twice to do something. From the time he was a freshman, ‘Cheng, this is what I need you to do,’ and he does it.”

And he does it well.

Qian, a versatile swimmer who generally specializes in the backstroke and freestyle events, has won multiple championships at the annual Delaney Athletic Conference meet in each of his first three seasons at R-MA.

Qian is a defending three-time conference champion in the 100-yard backstroke, and he won the 100 freestyle title as a freshman in addition to the 50 free championship as a sophomore and a junior.

He also was a member of the 200 medley relay team that won conference championships during his freshman and sophomore seasons, and Qian was a member of the conference champion 200 free and 400 free relay teams as a freshman and sophomore, respectively.

Williams noted that R-MA’s boys team did not field any competitive relay teams last season, which allowed Qian to focus solely on his individual events during his junior seasons. Qian responded by winning the 50 free and 100 back titles at the conference meet, and he placed 15th in the 100 back at the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association (VISAA) state meet.

“Last year there was probably the least amount of stress on him he could have. … As a result he wound up doing incredible in the backstroke,” Williams said. “He made the finals in the backstroke. He made the finals in the 50 free and just did incredible.”

Qian is now focused on building on that strong showing again this season.

The senior already owns school records in the 100 back (57.03 seconds), the 100 free (50.91 seconds) and the 50 free (23.31 seconds), which he set during his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons, respectively. Now he simply wants to place higher in the VISAA meet than he did a season ago.

Qian’s best chance to improve at the state meet — and possibly earn all-state honors with a top-two finish — probably lies in the 100 backstroke event, which Qian says is his strongest.

Qian said he’s been swimming longer distances in practice in order to build up his strength and endurance in the 100 back.

“I think I have strong starting kick but I can’t keep my speed the whole 100 all the time,” Qian said. “I can do 50 well, but the second 50 is kind of slow.”

Williams said he has allowed Qian to maintain the same workout routine he started when he returned home to Shanghai this past summer, which consists of the senior swimming anywhere from 2,000 to 6,000 yards during 2- to 3-hour sessions every day, Monday through Friday, in addition to weight-room work. Williams added that he plans to taper off Qian’s workouts in January as the postseason meets draw near.

Qian’s in-season workload figures to increase, as well, as Williams is expecting the Yellow Jackets to field competitive teams for the 200 medley, 200 free and 400 free relay events. In that case, Williams said, Qian will serve as the lead swimmer in all three events, which could impact which events Qian races in this postseason.

Williams said he’d like to get Qian qualified for the state meet in the 100 butterfly this season — an event that Qian excels at (his personal best is 56.63 seconds) but doesn’t particularly enjoy — to give R-MA some more options for postseason strategy.

“At the end of the season, if our relays are doing really, really well, as a coach I start thinking points and you get more points for relays than you do for individual events,” Williams said. “If we can use Cheng in three relays, then I’ve got to figure out which individual event is he going to be least worn out at when it comes time for that. And that’s where as a coach I’ve got to have a conscience and put him in that instead of risking it, putting him in his favorite event and having him rip a labrum or tear something.”

Qian, who said he began swimming competitively in China about 10 years ago, hopes to continue his swimming career at the collegiate level, although he’s realistic about his chances of competing at some of the higher classifications.

His current schools of choice include North Carolina State University, the University of California, San Diego and the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“I like swimming but I’m not going to take it as my career,” Qian said. “… I’d like to take it, half of it as my interest, half of it as a tool to get into college.”

Perhaps Qian’s loftiest goals lie outside of the swimming pool, as he plans to pursue a career in neuroscience at whichever school he attends.

“Helping Cheng understand you’re not going to make any money swimming has not been hard. Cheng’s very realistic about that,” Williams said. “But if swimming can help him stay focused throughout his college career, to give him something to burn off his energy to help him stay more focused academically, then that’s been a good out for him.”

<p id=’reporter_info’>Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or <a href=’mailto:bfauber@nvdaily.com’>bfauber@nvdaily.com</a></p>