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Somehow when Sydney Sell says she wants to swim in the 2016 Olympics, you don’t chalk it up to childish fantasies.
After all, it’s not like making the Olympics as a swimmer has the same impossible odds as playing in the NFL – just improbable odds.
But this isn’t about odds. It’s about determination, which Sell has in abundance. It’s about attitude and dropping time and spending as many hours in a pool as her peers spend texting.
It’s about popping in and out of the top 20 times – nationally – in her age group in the 50- and 100-meter backstroke events.
So when Sell says, “I really want to go there,” meaning Brazil for the Olympics, you can actually imagine her there.
“Yup, mmm, that’s about it,” she says.
She may laugh a little bit, but it’s more because she’s shy than that she’s not taking herself seriously.
Oh, and she’s 12.
So being ranked nationally is “cool,” but Sell hasn’t thought much about it. Beyond that Olympic goal, she concentrates more on the here and now: daily practice with the Shelby Sharks, a U.S.A. Swimming affiliate, and meets with the Sharks or her high school team, Western Hills.
Sell joined the Sharks late this fall, following older brother Robert, 16, who switched from their Frankfort competitive team in August. Sharks Coach Jeremiah Heath says he has been impressed with Sell’s time improvements and overall maturity, though it may be no surprise, given she’s among talented teammates.
“It always takes a successful team to have great individuals come out of it,” Heath said.
His coaching style is to let swimmers choose their own goals, however big or small, and help them reach those goals through practice guidance and accountability.
“Jeremiah’s done a really good job with her,” Sell’s mom, Laura, said, “and she’s really responded to him.”
Heath said Sell’s mentality sets her apart.
“She doesn’t think about how hard it is. She doesn’t think about how much time goes into it,” he said. “Things don’t really hold her back. She’s very mentally tough in that respect.”
Sell actually likes the harder Sharks practices. Sometimes they’re so hard she turns green from exertion, especially if she forgets her water bottle.
“We go longer distances, and we use different equipment to make it harder. My last team didn’t use anything but paddles,” Sell said. “And then we do longer distances for sprinting. That’s new to me.”
Though Sell wants to improve all the strokes, backstroke is her best, she said, and breaststroke is her worst. Freestyle and butterfly fall somewhere in between.
A recent breaststroke race nags her.
“I was swimming 100 breaststroke, and I didn’t beat this girl beside me,” Sell said. “I had her on the first 50, but she got me because she brought herself out of the water more, and I was pulling into the water.”
Sell is competitive and, in that sense, aggressive in a seemingly benign sport. She used to play soccer, but her parents pulled her from that fearing she would injure herself – or someone else.
In races, she gets in trouble for looking to the other lanes. During backstroke, it’s when she has emerged from her flip turn and shimmering underwater.
“He [Heath] always tells me I look at people underwater,” Sell said. “I’m not even aware I’m doing it, but apparently I am.”
She thinks about this for a second.
“I have to look,” she said, “because if I don’t I don’t know where people are and it doesn’t push me. So if I can’t see anybody, I just don’t go any faster.”
In practice, though she’s not out-and-out competing against him, Robert pushes her.
“When I don’t do something right, he’ll always bug me the whole practice to do it right,” Sell said. “It really gets on my nerves, but it makes me want to do it again. We’re both backstrokers. He swam a 57 [seconds in the 100] this weekend. I was planning to beat him, but not anymore.”
But to break the 1-minute mark -- the first woman to do it was U.S. Olympian Natalie Coughlin -- is on her list of goals. So is winning state titles with the Sharks and making the high school state meet.
Realistic? Yes. Worried about burning out? Nah. Sell loves what she does too much.
“I’m the one to control myself and how I swim,” she said. “If I want to get better, I can force myself to get better or I can not care about it and do bad. And I want to get better, so I’m making myself work harder.”