For many year-round swimmers, competing for your high school team could be considered slumming.
Even if the competition wasn’t always world class, Brandon Hamblin and Annie Boone usually found the motivation to make it fun and worthwhile, though. That’s a big part of why they’re The Free Lance-Star’s swimmers of the decade.
“Swimming for North Stafford was one of the most fun things I’ve done in my swimming career,” said Hamblin, who swept the Class 5 state 50-yard freestyle titles as a junior and senior in 2017 and 2018.
“Swimming for your club is mostly an individual thing, and if I say I’m going to junior nationals, people don’t always understand. But if I say I won a state title, everybody gets that. High school swimmers usually don’t get the glory that football or basketball players do. But swimming for North Stafford, I felt like I got it.”
Boone brought home even more gold from VHSL championship meets, sweeping Class 4 state titles in the 100 backstroke and 200 individual medley in each of her final three seasons (2014-16) at Eastern View. She still holds the state record in the 100 back (54.40).
And each medal came with a different meaning.
“The first time, I was new to it, and I thought, ‘This is pretty great,” Boone said. “Later on, it was almost like, ‘It’s states, it’ no big deal.’ The older I got, in my junior and senior years, it became a little less exciting.
“But my senior year, I started thinking, ‘The past two years, I’ve won the state title. These events are mine. Now, let’s see if I can improve on my times.”
Both swimmers parlayed their successes into college scholarships.
Boone recently completed her competitive career at Auburn University, while Hamblin is a rising junior at Indiana University, where he earned All-America honors as a freshman in 2019 as part of the Hoosiers’ fourth-place finish in the 200 free relay at the NCAA championships. Indiana’s bid to improve on that finish this year was thwarted when the coronavirus forced cancellation of the championship meet.
In high school, Hamblin didn’t have to look far for motivation. When he won the 50 free state title as a junior, his time was one-hundredth of a second off the Class 5 state record of 20.72 seconds. He shattered it as a senior with a 20.27 clocking, a mark that was broken this February by Rock Ridge’s Trace Wall (20.17).
“When I won it my junior year, I found out after the fact that I was one-hundredth of a second off,” Hamblin said. “ … Looking at my trajectory and development, I knew I would demolish it the following year.”
Hamblin made his mark early at North Stafford, helping the Wolverines win a state title in the 200 free relay. That year, veteran coach Traci Abramson encouraged her older swimmers to make Hamblin feel included, even if club team practice limited his interaction with his teammates.
When Hamblin was older, she encouraged him to serve as a mentor to his successor as the Wolverines’ top sprinter, Chase Gary.
“[Hamblin] is probably the best kid I’ve been around in terms of work ethic and attitude,” Abramson said. “He realizes his talents are God-given, but he’s very good about trying to bring other people up around him.”
Hamblin is close to qualifying for the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials, a meet Boone attended after graduating from Eastern View in 2016. After that year, though, her career became, in her words, “a roller coaster.”
Before her freshman season at Auburn, Boone broke her ankle and tore ligaments in the joint. “I couldn’t do everything everyone else could do,” she said.
It took her over a year to regain strength and mobility. Just when she did, the Tigers changed coaches after her sophomore season, sending her back almost to square one.
“You never know what you have until you lose it,” said Boone, who completed her eligibility last winter just before the pandemic struck. I have definitely missed being in a pool, being around my coaches and teammates, and the competitive atmosphere. But I don’t miss the very hard practices.”
Boone said she hasn’t been in a pool since her final college meet, the Auburn Invitational in February. She’s on track to graduate this winter and has an internship this fall at an Alabama middle school. She hopes to become a physical education teacher and hasn’t ruled out coaching.
Hamblin, meanwhile, is looking ahead to his goals. But he still remembers his high school days fondly.
“When we won the 200 freestyle relay my freshman year, it was three guys who weren’t year-round swimmers and me,” he said. “We said, ‘This would be really cool if we can win it.’
“That’s the beauty of high school swimming: if you put your mind to it, you can do almost anything.”