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Irvine’s O’Brien Conquers Nerves, Nation’s Best : Swimming: Sophomore gained confidence by winning 50 freestyle at U.S. Junior Nationals. Now, she turns her attention to the Southern Section.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With a long “umm” and a shrug of her shoulders, Wendy O’Brien says she figures things started to click in March when she was in Grand Forks, N.D.

It was there, at the Junior Nationals swim meet, that the 15-year-old Irvine High School sophomore won the 50-yard freestyle in 23.64 seconds.

“That (meet) was really important. It boosted my confidence and showed me that I could beat these other girls,” O’Brien said.

Those girls were some of the nation’s fastest teen-age swimmers. Her time put her in a class generally occupied by top college swimmers who compete in the Senior Nationals.

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And O’Brien is now swimming better than ever. She was named swimmer of the meet last month at the Foothill Swim Games, where she set a meet record in the 50 free and came within a 10th of a second of breaking the 100 free record. She won both her events last week at Sea View League championships, setting a meet record in the 50 free. With the Southern Section Division II championships coming up Saturday, she feels confident.

“I’m really looking forward to this meet,” said O’Brien, who counts Lana Stacey of Arcadia and Judy Thomas of Walnut as her chief rivals in the 50 and 100 freestyles. “I’m kind of nervous, and I want to do good. Especially since I didn’t have a good meet last year.”

As a freshman, O’Brien made it to the section final in each event, but was not pleased when she finished fifth in the 100 and sixth in the 50.

“She was really upset after (the section finals) last year,” Irvine Coach Scott Hinman said. “But she was a different girl then than she is now. Last year, she was easily intimidated. Just looking at the times posted would get her nervous.”

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Hinman said O’Brien now has a trait common to most great athletes--confidence. “She’s not cocky,” Hinman said. “She just knows that instead of her chasing these girls, they’re going to have to chase her.”

O’Brien has the county’s fastest freestyle times in the 50 (23.93) and the 100 (51.98). And since her Junior National victory, she has drawn attention from UCLA and North Carolina.

In addition to her mental maturity, Hinman said O’Brien is physically stronger, particularly in her upper body. She attributes that to workouts at the Irvine Novaquatics club, which include about 30 minutes of daily dry-land drills with weighted balls, and high intensity sprint-style swimming drills that are stressed instead of long sets of yardage.

Novaquatics Coach David Salo said O’Brien can be one of the nation’s best. And he said the Junior Nationals were a key in her outlook.

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“Her workout ethic has changed, and she is now starting to understand the training aspect of swimming. She is beginning to learn how to train,” said Salo, who has been coaching O’Brien for two years.

But as Salo remembers it, there have also been some stormy times between the two.

“She was a slacker. And there were times when I had to kick her out, and she would start crying,” Salo said. “But now, she is beginning to understand.” Salo said O’Brien is fortunate to be surrounded by other girls who have good workout habits, including El Toro’s Katie Lowes.

Lowes, also a sophomore, and O’Brien have been developing a rivalry lately.

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“When I made some corrections in workouts,” Salo said, “I wanted to team Wendy with some of the girls who have a good workout ethic. I think Katie helps Wendy, and I think Wendy helps Katie. It’s going to be interesting next year when El Toro joins the Sea View League.”

O’Brien just smiles at that prospect. “I guess it will be fun,” she said. “It will be tough for us with them in the league. But that’s good.”

A late bloomer, O’Brien started swimming with the Newport Beach YMCA at age 9. When she started to win some local meets, she told her father that she wanted to make the move to club swimming.

“That’s when we joined the Novas,” said Phil O’Brien, Wendy’s father. “From the beginning, I never had some grand plans for Wendy. My attitude has always been to do it for the love of it. It’s got to be fun.”

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But there were times, when all the training and aging up to 11-12-year-old group put a damper on the fun, and Wendy talked of quitting.

“It was very frustrating,” O’Brien said. “When you age up, you have to swim against all these girls who are faster than you. You have to start all over trying to get to the top.”

Said Phil: “When she talked of quitting, I’ve always told her to finish the season out. And if she still wanted to quit, then she can quit. And with Coach Salo, when she moved into his senior group, it was kind of rough for her. She wanted to leave, and we had meetings with him. But we seemed to get through it all, and now, she can’t wait to get to a workout.”

In addition to her dad, O’Brien said her mother, Betty Lou, has been very supportive. Not overbearing, but “always there.”

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“My mom and dad have been great,” she said. “And even though my dad gets me nervous sometimes, I’m glad they are there.”

All section swimming finals will be at Belmont Plaza pool in Long Beach. Division I will be at 7 p.m. Friday. Division III will be at noon Saturday, followed by Division II at 7 p.m.

Southern Section Swimming Preview

BOYS

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DIVISION I--Expect Mission Viejo, Woodbridge, El Toro and Marina to battle for the title. Woodbridge’s Derya Buyukuncu could set a section or national record; the Turkish Olympian will swim the 50 freestyle and 100 backstroke and already has the national high school record in the back. Mission Viejo’s Bart Sikora is expected to dominate the 500 freestyle. In the 200 free, Dawson Hughes of Woodbridge and Villa Park’s Matt Cornue should be top finishers. Also look for senior Jason Lezak of Irvine in the 50 and 100 freestyles; his fast starts could be a factor. Sophomores to watch include Irvine’s Steve Ronson (county’s fastest time of the year in the 100 breaststroke) and Mission Viejo’s Karl Hyross (200 individual medley, 500 freestyle). Santa Margarita’s Phillipe Demers, probably the only freshman who will make it to a final, may be the one to beat in the 100 butterfly.

DIVISION II--Defending champion La Crescenta Crescenta Valley is expected to be a strong contender, but Sunny Hills and Los Alamitos could offer some surprises. Ones to watch in individual competition: Los Alamitos’ Tim Haney, Eric Ploessel and Carlo Franzia and Seann Schiele of Sunny Hills.

DIVISION III--Laguna Hills was last year’s champion and has a good chance of repeating behind Mark Kwok. But watch for Trabuco Hills.

GIRLS

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DIVISION I--The team competition should boil down to defending champion El Toro and South Coast League champion Mission Viejo. Junior Teresa Mauck of San Clemente and Mission Viejo’s Cheryl Murphy likely will be top finishers in the 200 individual medley, and Murphy, who swam a blistering 56.52 in the 100 backstroke at the league finals, should dominate that event. Katie Lowes of El Toro will be the one to beat in the 100 and 200 freestyles. Nancy Jo of El Dorado, Cathy Carone of Capistrano Valley and Lisa Hess of Canyon should provide a close race in the 100 butterfly. Amber Wines of Santa Ana Valley and Katie Simmons of El Toro should perform well in the 100 breaststroke, and Alison Mijares, who has the second-fastest time in the county in 500 freestyle, figures to be one of Marina’s top finishers.

DIVISION II--Defending champion Walnut will probably be the one to beat. But expect Irvine, third last year, to challenge. Individuals to watch: Irvine’s Wendy O’Brien (top-seeded in the 50 and 100 freestyle); Newport Harbor’s Rachel Arrow, freshman Melissa Pomeroy and Melissa Schutz; Dana Nakaya and Jamiee Lindstrom of Woodbridge; Mater Dei’s Melanie Chiang; Tustin’s Mai Khan Nguyen, and Giana Johnson of Laguna Hills.

DIVISION III--Powerhouse San Luis Obispo is expected to dominate; Kennedy will probably be the only county team that fares well. In individual events, Kennedy’s Wendy Martin could win the 500 freestyle (fastest time in the county this year, 5:00.05) and also do well in the 200 free.


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