Lou Rabito: Gwynedd Mercy Academy swimmer Allie Szekely could make splash at states

Fifteen-year-old Monarchs swimmer Allie Szekely became a media sensation at the U.S. Olympic trials in June when she won a swim-off to determine the alternate for the 16-swimmer semifinals.
Fifteen-year-old Monarchs swimmer Allie Szekely became a media sensation at the U.S. Olympic trials in June when she won a swim-off to determine the alternate for the 16-swimmer semifinals. (LOU RABITO / Staff)
Posted: March 14, 2013

Actors don't usually perform on Broadway and then join the cast of the school play.

Likewise, athletes don't often vie for an Olympic berth and then go out for the high school team.

But Allie Szekely is a 15-year-old from Doylestown who acts as a 15-year-old and enjoys doing things that 15-year-olds do. That's why she has taken the standard sequence and turned it on its orderly head.

Less than nine months after swimming in the U.S. Olympic trials - and becoming a media darling for a day - the Gwynedd Mercy Academy freshman will compete in her first PIAA state championships starting Wednesday.

The competition on the varsity level, as might be expected, is quite different from what she has faced on the national circuit. She has won every race she has entered for Gwynedd Mercy and hardly been challenged.

What's more, in the recent district championships, she set meet records in both her individual events, simply obliterating one of the two marks, when she wasn't at her best.

Szekely, who is 5-foot-6, wears braces, and sprinkles her speech with "cool" and "pretty cool," said she's having a lot of fun.

"The whole team experience is great," she said. "You can't really experience a team experience as much when you're at the U.S. meets because it's more individual. You still have relays, but there's more of a team with this. And it's fun to have a lot of meets and not have to worry getting your best time every meet."

Added Gwynedd Mercy coach Heather Norman: "She wants to be part of the team. It's fun. She wants to be a teenage girl as well as an elite swimmer."

Szekely (ZEK-el-ee; it's Hungarian) swam in three races at the Olympic trials early last summer in Omaha, Neb., when she was 14: the 200-meter individual medley, the 100 breaststroke, and her best event, the 200 breaststroke. In most cases, the top two in an event qualified for the Olympics.

She finished 90th in the IM and 83d in the 100 breaststroke.

Szekely tied for 17th in the 200 breaststroke, and a swim-off was held to determine the alternate for the 16-swimmer semifinals, in case someone withdrew.

She faced University of Louisville junior Gisselle Kohoyda before a large crowd that, according to reports, rocked the building with cheers, mostly for the teenager.

Szekely heard the cheers - in the breaststroke, her head pops out of the water on every stroke - but didn't realize immediately most were for her. She won in 2 minutes, 30.03 seconds, 69-hundredths of a second ahead of Kohoyda, to get the alternate spot. However, she didn't compete in the semifinals, because none of the 16 qualifiers backed out.

Szekely estimated she signed about 30 autographs after the swim-off - "I never really signed them before. People were asking me. I was like, oh, that's kind of weird" - and she got to meet Dara Torres, the then-45-year-old who was aiming for a berth in her sixth Olympics.

Several national news organizations wrote about the swim-off. The public-address announcer, one report said, told the crowd: "We have just seen a future star. And you can say you were here to see it."

"It was just cool because swim-offs aren't that [common]," Szekely said. "It was right after Michael Phelps swam, so everyone was there anyway. As people were leaving, they just saw it. So that was really cool."

Szekely, who started to swim when she was about 7 and began year-round training at 12, won two events at the District 1 Class AA meet two weeks ago.

Her time, 2:01.24 in the 200 IM, broke a meet record that had stood for eight years, and broke it by 7.65 seconds. Her 1:04.74 in the 100 breaststroke surpassed, by less than a second, the meet mark set in 1995.

Neither record time was a personal best for Szekely.

"I wasn't really rested or tapered, so I just went in, tried my best," she said.

She is tapering - reducing her workload properly before a major competition - for the state championships and another meet later this month.

Imagine what she would do if her best event, the 200 breaststroke, were contested in high school meets.

"She has an amazing kick. Her kick is phenomenal," Norman said. "I mean, her entire stroke is amazing. You look at her breaststroke and you think, 'Wow.' I've never seen someone swim breaststroke like that. She just has so much power coming from her legs, her hips, driving her forward."

Norman has made some concessions for Szekely, who also competes for the Central Bucks Swim Team club. Gwynedd Mercy practices and hosts meets at La Salle High's four-lane, 25-yard pool. With only four lanes, and with all the girls on the team, Szekely couldn't swim the yardage she needs at practices to stay at her elite level.

So Szekely practices only once a week with the Monarchs. She has missed just one high school meet this season, Norman said.

Szekely is seeded first in the 200 IM and second in the 100 breaststroke for the state meet at Bucknell. She also will be in the 200 medley relay, swimming the breaststroke leg, of course.

Norman hopes to see Szekely make a stronger bid for an Olympic spot in 2016. Szekely, though, says she doesn't really think about the next U.S. trials.

"I want to improve my times, but also at the same time, I want to have fun," she said. "And if getting faster means not having fun, I don't really care that much.

"Because I don't want to be miserable swimming. I sometimes put too much pressure on myself, and I find myself not liking swimming as much as I should."

Contact Lou Rabito at 215-854-2916 or rabitol@phillynews.com.

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