At in Parkville, a group of kids goofed off in the deep end. The diving boards were closed in favor of a game called “sharks-n-minnows,” where kids dive into the water from all sides and try to catch each other as they swim to the opposite wall.
The scene was a gaggle of wet bathing suits, shiny hair pressed flat to heads, and flying water droplets, as the children’s individuality was lost to anonymity, from a bystander's point of view—lots of kids look exactly the same once they get wet.
But one girl transformed as she dove into the water. Instead of the loose-limbed and casual splayed-foot dive that most kids favor, her entire body went taut, her toes pointed, and her chin tucked. Even as a “catch me if you can” taunt came out of her mouth, her body was obeying a different set of rules entirely, as she executed a flawless dive that cut into the water.
That was, of course, a girl from the swim team.
Katie Milano, 12, an eighth grader at , has been making waves in the water since she was 7.
Or even before that.
“When she was just 2 years old, it was bath time and I turned to get a towel,” said Jen Milano, Katie’s mother. “I turned around and she was floating face-down in the bathtub. She told me she was practicing holding her breath.”
“So there’s never been a fear of the water,” she added.
When Katie was 7, she went with her family to the Dominican Republic for her grandmother’s honeymoon vacation.
“I was swimming across the pool and my granddad told my mom I needed to be on a swim team,” Katie said.
“Because you butterflied across the pool,” Jen corrected her.
It’s a distinction worth making. Katie had been watching her swimming idols at Hillcrest since she was small—the Woodman sisters, Maria, Sarah, and Lisa, all in college now, are still current record-holders of the Hillcrest Heat. Intensely interested in the difficult stroke, Katie begged the older girls to show her how to butterfly.
Apparently, she caught on quickly. She’s been catching up to their records ever since.
Katie started swimming for the Merritt Athletic Club year-round swim team, under head coach Andrew Barranco, doubling up in the summertime to swim for Hillcrest’s team as well. Practices are two to three hours long, depending on the season, and sometimes Katie attends several in a single day.
During the school year, homework is done on the deck of the pool.
“Katie’s done great the last couple years in particular,” said Barranco, who also coaches the USA Paralympic Swim Team, and is currently in London for the 2012 Summer Paralympic Games. “This past season she was awarded our Most Improved Swimmer, which I joked about because she was already a really good swimmer. She’s really attacking her races and sprinting the way she should be.”
Katie won a ribbon during her first meet, placing 9th out of 65. Since then, she can’t count how many ribbons she’s won—they’re stacked to the top of a laundry-sized basket at her house. At age 10, she qualified for the States competition and won a ribbon and a medal as well.
This year, her goal is to drop her time for the 100 meter freestyle from 1.01 (one minute and one second), her States-qualifying time, to 59 seconds, a Sectionals qualifying time. Sectionals is a step below Nationals, which leads to the Olympic trials. If you ask Katie when the next summer Olympics are, she doesn’t even hesitate.
“2016,” she answers, with the intensity of an athlete who has her eyes on the prize.
Rileigh Krell, an 11-year-old Stemmers Run Middle School student in Middle River, gives Katie a run for her money. Or maybe that’s a swim for her money.
The two girls, both swimming for Merritt Athletic Club, are fast friends but fearsome rivals in the water.
“We’re always neck and neck when we race,” said Katie.
Rileigh’s mother, Jill Krell, said, “Rileigh had only been swimming a few months and she had already made it to the Maryland State Championships.” She’s aware of her daughter’s talent, considering that Rileigh only started swimming two years ago, and sees a very professional, competitive edge in her daughter.
“Rileigh is in the top five of the championship meet next week,” said Jill, of Rileigh’s other team, the Valleybrook Gators, which swims in the Harford Swim League. Like Katie, Rileigh doubles up in the summer.
Neither of the mothers, Jen or Jill, hesitated when asked whether their daughters stand out from the crowd of their peers, as kids who really have what it takes to achieve a future in swimming.
“Yes,” said both mothers emphatically, in unison, and then laughed.
“They really do,” said Jill.