Feb. 22, 2002
By Adam Love
WSU Sports Information
In her first two years with the Washington State women's swim team, Rachel Dong has set one individual school record, three more as a member of relay teams, and grabbed positions in the school's all-time top-10 lists for six individual events.
Not bad for someone who failed swimming lessons three times as a child.
Dong attended Valley Christian High School in Paramount, Calif., and when the Cougars head to Long Beach, Calif., for the Pacific-10 Conference swimming championships, Feb. 28-March 2, she will be only miles from where she grew up. In fact, Belmont Plaza not only serves as the host facility for Pac-10's, but hosted many on the championship meets Dong swam in throughout her high school and club career.
"I don't think I've ever been this excited for a meet before," the California native said. "This is going home for me. I have swam at Belmont Plaza every year for our big meets since I was 12. There's just this mystique about the pool."
During her freshman year, Dong recorded a school-record time of 55.68 in the 100 butterfly, and records as a member of the 400 freestyle relay and 200 medley relay team. Those impressive performances earned her the team's most improved award and coach's award last season, and helped lead to her being named a team captain for the 2001-02 season.
"Rachel has blossomed into a great multi-dimensional swimmer," WSU Head Coach Rocco Aceto said. "She can jump into any event other than backstroke and help us in a meet. She has strong morals and values that enable her to lead by example."
So far this season, Dong has outdone the impressive performances of her first year. The sophomore dropped nearly a second off her school record in the 100 butterfly, clocking a time of 54.75 seconds at the Arkansas Invitational Nov. 30. In addition to her 100 butterfly record, Dong has moved into second place in WSU history for the 50 freestyle, 100 breaststroke, 200 breaststroke, 200 individual medley, and fifth place in the 100 freestyle. She has also broken school records as a member of the 200 freestyle relay, 400 freestyle relay and 200 medley relay.
All this coming from someone who could not pass advanced-beginner level swimming lessons until age 10.
"I was in the advanced beginner group for three summers, and I could never do the breaststroke, never do the frog kick, and could never swim more than two laps without getting too tired," Dong said. "Finally, one summer it clicked, and I was able to skip all the way to the advanced group."
After finally getting past the advanced-beginner group, Dong had more competitive aspirations, and began her club-swimming career.
"As I started getting better at age 12 or 13, it was my goal to make Junior Olympics in every event, which I did at that age," Dong said. "When you're young, you just get in there and swim, so you can do any event and technique doesn't matter as much."
Dong started to believe she actually had a future in competitive swimming around her freshman year in high school. She began competing with a new team, the Lakewood Swim Club, under the direction of Head Coach Vladimir Saphovkoz.
"Vlade (Saphovkoz) taught me that if I wanted to do something, I could," Dong said. "The new club provided me with more of a positive mindset. With my old club I had my goals and wanted to achieve them, but I didn't know how to do it. So when I went to Vlade, he laid it out and said, 'This is what we have to do, this is what I think you can do, so let's do it.' He worked with me and gave me a plan."
As her career progressed and her times kept dropping, Dong began to realize she had a good shot at attaining a scholarship to swim at the collegiate level.
"After my freshman year of high school, I was pretty close to making a junior national cut, and that's when coaches really start looking at you seriously," Dong said. "I made the cut as a sophomore, and the following year I made the senior national cut. That's when I really started thinking about a scholarship in college."
As scholarship offers began coming in, Dong was not originally thinking about leaving the state of California. She loved the sun and warmth of Southern California that is so conducive to activities such as swimming. However, Aceto was able to lure her to Pullman with his balanced emphasis on both swimming and academics.
"When Rocco first called me, we talked about academic expectations, and working hard in the classroom as well as in the pool," Dong said. "I really sensed that I could get more than just great swimming at WSU. I've always been a person that swimming has been a big part of my life, but never my entire life. At Washington State, I knew I'd be able to do other things on campus, and focus on academics as well as swimming."
Despite her amazing success in the pool, Dong definitely has never let swimming completely dominate her life. In high school, she not only was a model student, graduating with a 3.77 GPA, but also served as president of her senior class. With the increased demands of college classes and adjustment to the rigors of competing at the Pac-10 level, it would have been easy to let her studies suffer, but Dong has continued to maintain an impressive 3.59 GPA at Washington State.
"Rachel has been a member of the President's Honor Roll throughout her WSU career," Aceto said. "I think that says it all."
Dong has aspirations of competing at the 2004 Olympic Trials during the summer after her senior year of college. After that, she hopes to take her degree in movement studies and open up a personal training business back home in California.
"Once I'm done swimming, I want to do so many other things," Dong said. "When my swimming career is over, I'll be able to walk away as long as I know I've given it my best, and know that every day I came in and gave my all. Then, when I leave here I won't have any regrets."
There is no doubt Rachel Dong has come a long way from advanced beginner swimming lessons at age 10, to WSU record holder just nine years later. Now she is going home, looking to add to her impressive list of accomplishments at the Pac-10 Championships.
"I'm going to focus on racing the best I ever have," Dong said. "I feel like this is a golden opportunity for me. I've been to that pool so many times. I know the water, I know the turns, and I know the feeling I want to have."