Prep Swimming: McKenzie Stevens

  • Posted: Monday, March 24, 2014 1:18 a.m.
    UPDATED: Monday, March 24, 2014 7:10 a.m.

SALISBURY — McKenzie Stevens is a small girl with large dreams, but that makes some sense.

Her words to live by came from Liberia’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: “If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.”

A lot of the Salisbury High swimmer’s scary dreams have come true already. At 18, she’s a YMCA All-American and she’s a two-time state champion in two different events.

She was the 2013 Rowan County Swimmer of the Year and she’s a two-time Central Carolina Conference Swimmer of the Year

“When you throw yourself into something like I have swimming, you’re kind of putting yourself out there,” Stevens said. “I’ve killed myself practicing for a long time, but when you have some success, it’s very rewarding.”

Stevens turned another large dream into reality last week when she signed with Queens. Family, teammates and coaches were on hand in the SHS media center as she picked up a pen and officially started the transformation from high school to college athlete.

The strong-willed Stevens trains steadily and strenuously.

“An hour on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings,” she said. “Then 2 1/2 hours every afternoon.”

Exactly what motivates Stevens isn’t easy to explain, but her coaches agree the competitive fire inside her burns unusually hot.

“She does push herself,” SHS coach Ryan Starrett said. “I’ve known her since she was 3 or 4 years old, and she’s always had that special drive. It’s why she excels in the classroom and it’s why she’s had such a big impact on swimming at this school.”

Ben Humphrey has coached Stevens’ efforts with the Rowan Aquatic Club for three years.

“She has a passion for swimming and a drive that’s going to make her successful in and out of the water,” he said. “She’s the one that always sets the example for the RAC’s young swimmers. She’s the one that gets practice started if I’m not there.”

Stevens won the 200 freestyle in the 1A-2A state meet as a junior.

Six weeks ago in the state championships, Stevens actually swam almost a second faster in the 200 than her junior time, a personal-best, but she finished second to record-setting Lincoln Charter sophomore Christina Lappin.

Undaunted, Stevens came back for the 500 freestyle, an event in which she was runner-up as a junior, and blew away the field. She won by 9 seconds and climbed the podium for another gold medal.

“McKenzie was far from 100 percent that day because she had a shoulder that was really hurting,” Starrett said. “Tired and hurting, kids still usually will do their best times at states. It’s the adrenaline and the energy and a lot of it is that their teammates are there cheering them on. It’s a pretty fantastic thing to see.”

Stevens also competed in two relays in the state championships. She was the anchor on the 400 free relay team that finished 13th, following young teammates Nellie Brown, Sharmi Amin and Amelia Steinman into the pool.

Stevens’ older sister, Garrison, was a standout swimmer at Salisbury. She placed third in the 2009 state championships in the 100 breaststroke, was Rowan County and CCC Swimmer of the Year and competed at Clemson. A future engineer, she’s in graduate school at Clemson now and has been a positive role model for her younger sister in swimming as well as academics.

The folks who rank and analyze and chart that sort of thing rate Stevens 31st among N.C. swimmers in all classifications and among the top 900 or so in the Class of 2014 nationally, so it’s reasonable to ask why she’s headed to Division II Queens.

There are a lot of factors involved.

“I did look bigger, but when I went to UNC Wilmington and College of Charleston, I didn’t find what I wanted,” Stevens said. “That’s when I called the coach at Queens. I didn’t get to visit Queens until January, but it had everything I was looking for.”

Stevens has survived three knee surgeries, so she’s had quite a bit of experience with the value of physical therapists. She’ll prepare for either a career in physical therapy or business at Queens, and school has an excellent academic reputation for either path she decides on.

Queens is in Charlotte, so it’s close. Miles are a small factor, but Stevens’ biggest reason for choosing Queens is it isn’t a normal D-II school when it comes to swimming.

The Royals’ program is just four years old, but the athletic program is committed to swimming excellence. The men’s and women’s squads both finished in the top four in the recent D-II nationals held in Ohio.

Queens swimmers won nine championships and set seven D-II records at those nationals, and Queens coach Jeff Dugdale is a world-class instructor, who has produced Olympians.

“They have a great coach and a great program,” Stevens said. “I’ve gotta swim, it’s just who I am, and now I’m really excited about competing in college.”

Stevens is stil driven and still dreaming, so you’ll be hearing about her for years to come.

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