Sunday, January 20, 2008

"Clare's Choice" - by Aaron McFarling

Roanoke Times, The (VA)-February 17, 2005
Author: Aaron McFarling 981-3124

This is a story about a quitter.

You can decide for yourself if that's a good thing, like
quitting smoking, or a bad thing, like giving up a winning lottery ticket.
It's up to you.

You can listen to the whispers about failure, about coming up
short, about squandering so much talent for no apparent reason. You can
listen to the other side, the side that champions free choice, the side
that points out that the kid still swims for the William Byrd High
School team, the side that wonders aloud about the consequences of athletes
doing too much too soon.

Or you can just listen to the quitter herself. She will tell
you that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

But she will also tell you this: She's happy now.

She hasn't always been, even when she was the envy of many.


At one time, 18-year-old Clare Wooddall-Gainey was on track to
be the most prolific swimmer this region had ever seen.

"She had unbelievable talent," said Doug Fonder, head coach of
the Virginia Gators, the year-round swimming program in Roanoke for
which Clare swam. "I've coached 35 years. She is the best physical talent
I've probably had in 35 years, and I've had three or four kids that
have already made it to the Olympics."

She was in a swimming pool before she was out of diapers. She
was on the cover of The Roanoker magazine before she was old enough to
drive. She broke national swimming records in her mid-teens. For years,
she practiced day after day, before school, after school, perfecting
her strokes, digging for yard after yard after yard, chasing Olympic

But then she began to wonder: Whose dreams were they?


There were times Clare loved being in the water. Like July 30,
2002, when she swam the 50-meter freestyle in 26.49 seconds to win at
the YMCA national championships for the second straight year. Or the
following August, when she qualified for the Olympic trials by swimming
the 50 free in 26.39 seconds.

But there was also the constant sacrifice, at least four hours
of workouts every school day. And there was an underlying feeling that
maybe this really wasn't how she wanted to spend her life.

"The [practice] sets I found to be long and tiring," said
Clare, a senior at William Byrd High School. "I just wanted to sit on the
wall and talk, and I just wasn't into it as much as everybody else was or
as much as everybody wanted me to be."

But she wasn't the only one invested in her career. It was her
father who had put her in the pool less than a year after adopting her
at 6 weeks old. It was her father who guided her into competitive
swimming at the age of 9.

And while Clare doesn't resent that - she figures she gained
discipline and some social benefits from swimming year-round - there came
a time when she wanted off the track.

"It was his goal," she said of the Olympics. "But I think we
intertwined them until I was about 15."

She smiles.

"Then I out-twined him."


David Wooddall-Gainey says he doesn't have any regrets. He
remembers his daughter having a lot of fun in the pool at an early age. And
with her talent, he figured it was best to get her into a good
year-round program as soon as possible.

But as she got older, he could see the signs of burnout in his
daughter, the signals that maybe things got too intense for her too

The lack of energy at practice. The grouchiness when she got
home. The slipping grades, the discipline problems.

"If your heart's not in it, that's what's going to happen,"
Wooddall-Gainey said. "And her heart stopped being in it a while ago,
which we were seeing."

It started in November 2002, when she took six weeks off from
swimming, citing fatigue. That left her unprepared for the Olympic
trials in July, so she didn't go.

With that goal dashed, Clare freely admits that she stopped
pushing as hard in the pool.

"We tried working with her," Wooddall-Gainey said. "We tried a
lot of things to see if we could get her back on track, and nothing was
really working."

Finally, in November, Clare cut her ties with the Gators

"I told Doug that it was nothing against him or the team or
anything," she said. "It was just my choice.

"I'd been suffering with it for a while. I'd been swimming like
two years without liking it, and you can't really do a sport without
liking it. So I just came and did Byrd swimming."

For most year-round swimmers, the high school program is an
afterthought. For Clare, it became her escape.

Only an hour and a half of swimming a night? Free time on the

Joking around at practice? Trying silly strokes?

Awesome. All of it.

"I just like to play," she said.

Her father has noticed it, too. Clare is happier, has more
energy, has pulled her grades up, helps out around the house.

"It was good to let go," he said. "It's been real good to let


The Group AA state swim meet is Friday and Saturday in
Charlottesville. It will be the last time Clare competes in a pool for a while.

In the Region III finals, she won the 100 backstroke and ended
up second in the 100 butterfly. Coming into the meet, Clare had swum
the region's second-fastest time in both the 200 and 500 freestyles. Her
backstroke time ranked fourth.

She doesn't have a college scholarship. She plans to spend a
year at Virginia Western, then try to transfer to a four-year school. She
hasn't ruled out joining a college swim team "if they'll have me."

And that is what breaks some people's hearts.

But not Clare's.

She has a job now, at the YMCA in Roanoke. Had it about three
weeks. She coaches young swimmers. She laughs and plays and splashes
with them.

"I wanted to help them out and get them on the right track,"
she said. "So maybe they can have a better experience than I ended up

Of course, being around a pool so much, the whispers will still
be there. Why would she give it up?

Clare Wooddall-Gainey's answer is pretty simple.

Because it's her life.


The Roanoke Times Clare Wooddall-Gainey, 18, coaches a young

swimmer on the YMCA team at the YMCA in downtown Roanoke. Photo -

Photos by JOSH MELTZER l The Roanoke Times Clare

listens to secrets from Kelsey Holmgaard (left) and Addair

after practice at the YMCA in downtown Roanoke last week. The

William Byrd High School senior coaches young swimmers there. "I

wanted to help them out and get them on the right track," she

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