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Penguins hope to leave foes in Texas-sized wake

Four Nevada County swimmers will compete against the best 800 in the country on Saturday for the 2010 Speedo Champions Series Southern Zone Sectional Championships held on the campus of Texas A&M University.

On the starting block we have …

In lane one, Whitney Stephenson, a 21-year-old graduate of Nevada Union High School who is competing in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke, as well as the 200-meter freestyle.



In lane two, Trey Herbert, a 16-year-old junior from Nevada Union High School, who will race in the 50-, 100- and 200-meter freestyles.

In lane three, Sierra Kleiber a 16-year-old junior from Nevada Union High School, who will take to the pool for the 50-, 100- and 200-meter freestyle.




And in lane four, we have Hayley Chace a 14-year-old freshman from Nevada Union High School competing in the 100 and 200 breasttroke.

Stephenson was an accomplished swimmer at NU, where she was a high school All-American, and reached the finals of the 100-meter backstroke at the 2006 U.S. Spring Nationals. She was a finalist in the 50-, 100- and 200-yard backstroke and also reached the finals of the 100- and 200-meter backstroke in the 2006 competition.

“To be a high school All-American, it takes dedication and to be fully committed and motivated,” Stephenson said. “I trained at 5 a.m. in the rain and snow. I trained with Larry Gruver all year. I swam at meets outside of the school season.

“It was more about club meets. When you do club, you learn how to compete in meets against not very good competition, mentally you find your own competition and push yourself.”

Stephenson received a scholarship to swim for the University of Southern California, where she swam as a Trojan for two years. While at USC, Stephenson competed at the 2007 NCAA Championships in her freshman season, taking 45th in the 200-yard back and 69th in the 200-yard free. Also taking to the pool for the 2007 PAC-10 Championships, she finished 16th in the 100 back as well as 19th in the 200-yard freestyle.

Stephenson raced in three events at the 2008 Pac-10 Championships, taking 22nd in the 100-yard backstroke, 28th in the 200 back and 29th in the 200-yard freestyle.

In the spring of 2009, she quit USC and the Trojan swim team.

“I went to USC to swim and when things did not work out like I planned,” she said. “I was not happy. I’m not an L.A. person. I talked to my parents and they supported my decision to quit school and they said they would help me find another school.

“My parents told me, you need to be happy in other areas of your life, not just swimming. I came home after finals and talked to Larry (Gruver); he was willing to coach me over that summer and get me ready for a meet in August.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself trying to pull myself out of the gutter I got myself into. You know quitting school, coming home, there were a lot of changes. That was the meet I put a lot of pressure on myself. I qualified for the Olympic trials and I pulled myself out of a bad situation, it was empowering.

“I’m in the process of finding the right school for me, I don’t regret my decision to leave USC, I learned a lot of lessons in doing it. I want to be a leader on the team, I want to find that happy niche that I did not have at USC.”

This weekend’s meet in Texas does mean something to the NU grad, but she does not feel any pressure to perform.

“I’m being recruited,” Stephenson said. “I have college coaches looking at me, but I have been training with Larry since August for this one. I’m ready and I’m here to race and to see how well I can do. I want to have fun.”

Herbert said he wants to lower all his times, but most of all he wants to drop his 50-meter time by a full second. He has a new high-tech suit, and he feels it’s possible to do it.

“I’m in the pool at least two hours every day but Sunday,” Herbert said. “I don’t have much time for myself or time to hang out with my friends.”

Herbert wants to follow in Stephenson’s wake, he has a desire to swim at a Division I school.

“Cornell has sent me a few letters,” he said. “I don’t know if I want to go to the East Coast. I would like to go to Stanford or Cal, if I can get my grades up. Maybe University of Arizona.”

Herbert has already qualified to compete at the Junior Nationals this August in Irvine, Gruver said.

The four swimmers are being escorted to Texas by Gruver, who started coaching in a swimming pool 47 years ago and began coaching the Penguins club team in 1996. He also coached his three children while competing on the Penguins team, including two who went on to swim at UC Berkeley and the other still coaches swimming today.

“I know competitive swimming is a good proving ground for kids and it builds self esteem,” Gruver said. “I like working with young people. I like them and they seem to like me.”

Grass Valley’s Penguins Swim Team is year-round commitment and is open to anyone who wants to swim competitively. For more information, http://www.PenguinSwim.org.

Scott P. Hopper is a sports writer for The Union. Contact him via e-mail at sphopper@theunion.com or by phone at 477-4231.


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