Boys’ Swimmer of the Year: Millbrook’s Mark Graham

Posted: March 27, 2013

Millbrook junior Mark Graham is The Winchester Star’s Boys’ Swimmer of the Year, and Sherando junior Kelsey Dingman is The Winchester Star’s Girls’ Swimmer of the Year. (Photo by Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — It’s been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

If Millbrook junior Mark Graham keeps it up, he may soon have enough imitators to open his own clinic.

“A lot of people have been saying they want to copy his straight-arm, windmill freestyle stroke,” Millbrook coach Will Sigler said. “They look at how fast he’s going, and they want to do that.”

With good reason.

Graham was a strong swimmer in 2011-2012, but he powered his way to the top by developing a more powerful stroke in 2012-13. This season Graham, who placed eighth in the 50-yard freestyle at the Group AA/A state meet, became the first boys’ swimmer to advance to a championship final at the state meet since 2010.

For that accomplishment —which made him the first Millbrook boy to qualify for a championship final — Graham is The Winchester Star Boys’ Swimmer of the Year.

Graham’s swims in the pool don’t take long — his top 50 free time of 22.40 in yards (24.86 in meters) is not only a school record, but also the area’s fastest in this century — and his rise to the top hasn’t taken long either.

Prior to his freshman year in high school, Graham had never swam competitively before, and he only did so after his friends and current teammates Alex Morrow, Hunter Doherty and Chris Patton convinced him to give it a try.

As a sophomore, Graham started to come into his own, placing second in the 50 free and 100 free at the Northwestern District meet, and qualifying for the Group AA/A meet with Millbrook’s 200 free relay team.

Sigler, an assistant coach for Graham’s first two years, thought the state trip made Graham hungry to get back, and Graham added placing as high as he did in so many meets made him want to see what he could do if he truly committed himself.

“Winning makes you feel good and makes you like the sport more,” Graham said. “It makes you want to find ways to get better, so next year you can get first and beat the people who beat you last year.”

Graham’s sophomore success led him to seek out a team outside of Millbrook for the first time, and he joined the Winchester Swim Team after the season. Graham was immediately impressed by how difficult the practices were, and he found that he was gradually improving and getting better times.

Still, when summer came, he though he could be better. Intrigued by the straight-arm windmill technique he had previously seen other swimmers do, he decided to adopt it for himself. And when he saw his times drop in some summer meets, he was hooked.

Hooked, but not addicted. A swimmer can only take so much of it.

“It takes a lot more energy than a normal swim, and a lot more strength,” Graham said. “It’s extremely tiring. During practice I usually don’t do it. But I do it because I need the advantage. Everyone’s bigger than me.”

Once the high school season started, the 5-foot-11, 150-pound Graham came up big time after time.

In the Pioneers’ first individual meet, the Sweet Inspiration Invitational at Shepherd University on Dec. 8, Graham recorded a yard time of 23.51 seconds that was 0.12 off state-qualifying, a meet that also saw him win the 100 free.

Almost two weeks later in a meet against Kettle Run in Manassas Park on Dec. 21, Graham got his first-ever individual state cut in the 50 free with a 23.28.

“He had some really great swims at Shepherd, and then against Kettle Run, he had a good start, good turn and good finish to get his state cut,” Sigler said. “You could just tell that he came in in much better shape this season.”

Graham said getting his state cut only made him want to get better, and his sterling postseason certainly proved that.

At the Northwestern District meet, Graham won the 50 free with a time of 25.69, 1.16 seconds faster than his district time from the previous year. (Graham also took second in the 100 breaststroke in 1:17.68 in just his second attempt at that event this season.)

At the Region II meet, Graham picked it up a notch. Based on the heat sheet, Graham didn’t even think he’d even finish in the top eight. Instead, his 25.55 yard time (which converts to 22.83 in meters) wound up putting him in second.

“That was probably one of the best parts of my season,” Graham said. “I was really pumped up.”

And that set the stage for the best part of his season.

At the Group AA/A state meet, the odds were once again against Graham, as he was seeded 16th. That meant if form held, he’d barely qualify for the consolation finals, which consist of the swimmers who take ninth through 16th in preliminaries.

But in an event in which dropping four-hundredths of a second is a big deal, Graham dropped more than four-tenths to 22.40 — edging out the ninth-place finisher’s 22.42 to earn a spot in the championship finals.

Graham said he began jumping around when he realized what he had done. The heat sheet might not have suggested he’d make the finals, but he wasn’t going to back down from the challenge.

“When the competition’s better, and you see them, you’re just like, ‘I’ve got to beat the person next to me,’” said Graham, who was glad he was able to celebrate with his 200 free relay teammates that had qualified for the state meet, as well as Morrow.

Graham said the championship final was a revealing experience — he couldn’t help but note that everyone else in it was “four or five inches” taller than him in a race that saw him record a 22.43.

The good news for Graham is that while he may not have some of the same physical gifts, he now knows what it takes to compete at a high level. And he showed that if he puts his mind to something — like a new freestyle stroke or the breaststroke — he can do big things.

“I’m just going to keep working at it,” Graham said. “I’m going to come back next year and hopefully do better.”

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at  rniedzwiecki@winchesterstar.comFollow on Twitter @WinStarSports1