American Sprinting: A Glimpse into the Past…Rhiannon Jeffrey

This post is a tribute to Swimming’s Rising stars in the early 2000’s. Today: Rhiannon Jeffrey 
Shortly after setting the pool on fire at the 2000 Olympic Games, the U.S. women’s sprint dynasty was already in serious trouble. Dara Torres, Amy Van Dyken, and Ashley Tappin had announced their retirements, and Jenny Thompson would no longer defer entry into medical school.

Almost instantaneously, the matriarchs of a generation of female sprinters were gone, leaving the future of American women’s sprinting in a precarious position. The Europeans had already taken over: Holland’s Inge De Bruijn reigned as Olympic champion and world record holder; Sweden’s Therese Alshammar held the short course global marks; and Britain’s Alison Sheppard was the fastest 50 meter sprinter on the planet in ’02.

Things were beginning to look even more bleak in the summer of 2002, when a German squad led by a rejuvenated Franzi van Almsick did the unthinkable, breaking the USA’s seemingly untouchable 400 free relay world record set in Sydney. Just a few days later at the Pan Pacific Championships, the U.S. women began to show chinks in their once impregnable armor, losing both the 400 free and medley relays to Australia, despite the imposing presence of Natalie Coughlin and the welcome return of veteran Jenny Thompson. Things were not looking good.

But then…an answer arose recently from the chlorinated blue in the form of three teenage girls, who over a single weekend in November at three different meets, rewrote high school swimming’s record books and charted a course they each hope will culminate in Olympic glory a year-and-a-half from now. Rhiannon Jeffrey, Christina Swindle, and Kara Lynn Joyce were not yet household names then, but these three young women were at the forefront of the ever-growing youth movement leading American swimming into Athens. The next was written in the early 2000’s. Let’s take a look:

Rhiannon Jeffrey
America’s top young sprinter has a name as expressive as her personality. She wears black nail polish, enjoys playing tackle football and wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress. Oh, and did we mention she’s fast? Rhiannon: it’s not just a song anymore.
It has become fairly common for distance swimmers to become sprinters over time, but it’s rare, indeed, when a sprinter becomes a middle distance ace. Others went for synchronized swimming but Rhiannon loved sprinting. That’s exactly what’s been happening as of late with 16-year-old phenom Rhiannon Jeffrey of Delray Beach, Fla. Primarily trained as a 50 and 100 swimmer, she and her Aqua Crest coach, Scott Barlow, decided to play with the idea of training for the 200 freestyle this year.

“In looking at our chances for the Olympics, we realized they take more swimmers in the 100 and 200 free than the 50, so we shifted our focus away from that event and more toward the 200,” says Rhi. Though it took some focus and adjustment in the beginning, the decision has since paid off in spades.

The fruits of their labor were first realized with two dream performances at last summer’s nationals in Fort Lauderdale, where then 15-year-old Rhi slashed a full second off her personal best to finish third in the 100 meter freestyle (55.39), defeating three-time Olympian Jenny Thompson, and setting a new 15-16 NAG record in the process.

In the 200 free, she dropped an even more impressive 3.3 seconds from her personal best to capture fourth (2:00.72) behind national team mainstays Natalie Coughlin, Lindsay Benko and Diana Munz. Both swims earned her a spot on the Pan Pacific team, where she won a silver medal in the women’s 400 freestyle relay. Check out also this post on backstroke techniques.

“That was just a great meet nationals,” recalls Rhi. “It was so nice to have my friends and family in the stands there to see me swim. On top of that to make the Pan Pacific team, my first big international team – it was a dream come true.” The dream continued in November at the Florida 2A High School Championships, where the Atlantic Delray junior broke the oldest existing record in high school swimming, clocking 1:45.49 in the 200 yard freestyle to put an end to the reign of Sippy Woodhead, who set the record in 1982 – four years before Rhi was born.

Said Jeffrey after the race, “I was overwhelmed, but I pretty much felt I was going to do it when I stepped onto the blocks. I just had a feeling, but I had no idea I was going to go that fast. It’s the best feeling in the world. This is incredible. On a scale of 1-to-10, it’s probably an 11!” Dr. James “Doc” Counsilman couldn’t have agreed more.

She continued her winning ways, dipping below the 50-second barrier in the 100 freestyle for the first time to break another state record, set just a day earlier by Swimming World’s two-time female High School Swimmer of the Year, Christina Swindle. Jeffrey’s time, a scorching 48.73 seconds, just missed the national standard established by Ann Arbor Pioneer’s Kara Lynn Joyce at the Michigan state high school meet, held over the same weekend. The time was, however, another 15-16 NAG record.

Outside of the pool, Rhi is just as fierce a competitor. During her free time, you can often find Rhi tossing the pigskin. “I really enjoy playing football,” she grins. “I play powderpuff at school, and we have to play with flags. It’s fun, but I prefer to play full contact. More often than not, afterward I’ll just end up finding a bunch of guys to play full-on tackle football. I’m a very aggressive person, and probably one of the most competitive people you’ll ever meet, whether it be in practice, meets or out of the pool altogether.”

Coach Scott Barlow agrees and says that Rhi’s drive and competitive desire are a big factor in her success. “She’s a very hard worker. She’s not one of those superstar kids who just shows up and doesn’t put in the work, then goes to the meet and performs. She puts in the work and is committed to what she’s doing. I think those are two attributes that make her as good as she is.”

She’s also not afraid to challenge convention. At the Palm Beach County Swimming Championships last October, she was disqualified before a 200 freestyle race for not removing a nose ring in time for the start. The nose ring is gone now, but she does have designs on, perhaps, a bellybutton ring, or a tattoo in the future. More importantly, she has designs on trying her hand at some new events.

“I’m really interested in developing some of my longer events now,” she says. “I’d like to start training more for the 200 and 500.” At a recent Florida Gold Coast senior meet, she posted unrested times of 4:47.50 in the 500 yard free, a personal best by 10 seconds, and 16:34.04 in the 1650, a drop of nearly a minute from her previous best. If she does elect to swim the 500 free to cap off her high school career at next November’s state meet, Janelle Atkinson’s state mark and Janet Evans’ national mark could be under fire.

Rhi is both confident and excited about her chances to make the 2004 Olympic team. “That is definitely what I’m shooting for,” she affirms. “I had a blast at Pan Pacs in 2002, and it gave me a taste of what it’s like to swim at the international level. It made me even hungrier, and now, more than ever, my goal is to become an Olympian.”
More about Christina Swindle and Kara Lynn Joyce in later posts.