Fourth-grade phenomenon swims for the stars
Just because you're only nine years old doesn't mean you can't be a champion, and Forest Grove Swim Club member Sydney McDonald is out to prove it.
The young swimmer, who hails from Gaston, took first place in the 50-meter freestyle during the 10-and-under State USA Championship held at the Tualatin Swim Center July 15 and 16. She currently holds the No. 1 time in the nation for her age group for that particular event, at 32.83 seconds.
"She is hungry to win and has so much power under the water with each pull — she's a beast," said Head Coach Summir Valls.
Sydney, who attends Ewing Young Elementary School in Newberg — where she'll be in fourth grade next fall — swims with the Forest Grove Swim Club (FGSC). This year marked her second time competing at the state level during the long-run summer season, and she also placed second in the 100 freestyle, fifth in both the 200 freestyle and 50 breaststroke, and sixth in the 100 individual medley. Three of her teammates — Leah Meeuwsen, Victoria Kurtz and Madigan Beier — also competed at the state level.
Sydney's mother, Soozie, said mom and daughter were especially proud of her second-place award — Sydney was ranked in fifth place before the race.
"It was a full-on side-by-side race with the girl that was in first, and she lost by three-tenths of a second," said Soozie.
Her coaches, of course, are glowingly proud, too.
"She's already qualified to go to state for the 10-year-old age groups, and she has them at age 9," said Ray Miller, the coach responsible for teaching the 8- to 10-year-olds.
Swimmers have to make a certain time in events during the regular swim meets to qualify for those events in the state competition, said Miller.
He sees a self-motivation in Sydney that's uncommon in 9-year-olds, and her spark livens up swim practices, igniting friendly competition among her teammates.
"Sydney's competitive spirit is infectious. We have a great group of swimmers including Sydney who love to push themselves every workout," said Valls. "They show up to practice to encourage each other and at the same time race each other to be the first to the wall. That energy pushes them to their best."
Sydney is swimming for the stars — her ultimate goal to become an Olympic swimmer, inspired by the feats of Olympic gold medalist and world champion swimmer Katie Ledecky.
"If she keeps the mindset that she has and it's a goal that she really wants to achieve then I think she'll get there," said Miller.
Before the championships Sydney was ranked first for the 50-meter freestyle. Her mother said a first-place ranking makes the race mentally challenging because the pressure is on.
"There's so much stress in that. It's yours to win and it's yours to lose, so I was really nervous for her," said Soozie.
But Sydney came through with her winning ways, and Coach Miller has a new strategy to relieve some of the stress his swimmers face. He leads them through 15-minute visualizations to mentally prepare them for the challenges ahead.
"They imagine themselves at the pool swimming the perfect race," said Miller.
They imagine how their starts will look and how the water will feel as they swim, visually applying the techniques they learned in practice. He thinks it builds their confidence and keeps the overwhelming feelings at bay when the realization they're about to compete hits five minutes before their races begin. They even do visualizations during the last 15 minutes of practice to let the lessons they learned really sink in.
At the FGSC Sydney doesn't have just a place to compete and swim — she's found a family community at the aquatic center.
"Most of my friends are at school and they don't know about my swim life," said Sydney. "But when I talk to my swim friends we can talk about our strokes and techniques and swim meets. I get to see them every day at practice and they're really supportive."
Sydney isn't the only member of her family infected with team spirit.
"The Forest Grove Swim team has been really great — like a family. We spend a lot of time there and it's become this close-knit community," said Soozie, who became a USA swimming official to help her daughter's team.
She acts as a referee at swim meets, watching kids swim and making sure they are doing it by the rulebook.
"I had to disqualify Sydney once — it's not the best position to be in as the parent," said Soozie.
But disqualifications are common and always a good learning experience for the young swimmers, serving as strong reminders to improve their technique.
"That is the last time they do it wrong because they're so mad at themselves," said Soozie. "It solidifies that they're doing something the coaches have told them not to do."
A disqualification can be tough to face, but challenges actually encourage this 9-year-old to try harder — the urge to swim runs in Sydney McDonald's blood, along with her flair for competition.
"She's a great swimmer but you can't teach someone to be competitive. They have to really want it, and that's something she was born with," said Soozie, who went to the University of Washington on a track and field scholarship. Sydney's athleticism has family roots — her grandfather was actually a swim and water polo coach, coaching both Sydney's mother and father in high school.
Even with all her preparation Sydney said she had butterflies in her stomach before she swam at the championship — and she celebrated her success by jumping back in the pool to swim more.
"I'd swim forever if I could," said Sydney.