From junior high to the national spotlight

Seventh-grader Willa Wang competes against big-time competition
Friday, February 15, 2008 | 10:26 p.m. CST; updated 6:00 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — The closest 13-year-old Willa Wang had come to a meet like the Missouri Grand Prix was when she participated as a timer at a meet last year. But on Friday, Wang found herself winning her heat of the 200-meter butterfly.

“It’s amazing,” Wang said. “Seeing all the faces of the Olympians, it was amazing. I’m really here for the experience, and if I swim well, it’s just a bonus.”

Wang, a seventh-grader and a member of the Club Wolverine swim team in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is one of only about a dozen 13-year-olds competing in a meet of about 640 athletes.

“I’m just taking it all in,” Wang said. “Junior nationals is my goal for this season. Once I surpass that, I’ll just keep going and see where I end up.”

Wang qualified for the U.S. Junior National Championships in January. Those championships will be held beginning Aug. 4 in Minneapolis.

Wang came into the Grand Prix with a 200 fly seeding time that was measured in a yard pool, meaning that she was seeded only 68th for the long course meter pool format of the meet. Wang’s time of 2:24.01 did not qualify for the finals. She will finish 38th in the event.

Wang was seeded in lane 8, the outside lane generally reserved for the race’s slowest swimmer. The swimmer set to swim in lane 7 did not show up, meaning that Wang was all alone on the edge of the pool.

But largely because of her strong final lap in the race, Wang finished ahead of her closest competitor, Meaghan Fenn in lane 4, by .02 seconds.

Wang, the youngest swimmer in a race that included girls as much as four years older than she, said that swimming against older girls can be intimidating.

“Sometimes it is, sometimes it’s just like we all have the same chance here,” said Wang, who is an inch or two shy of five feet tall. “It doesn’t matter who’s older or who’s taller.”

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