GLENDALE — If the sport involves a stopwatch and a finish line, chances are Andrea Kropp will finish near the front of the pack.
If the contest is taking place in water, she's usually a strong bet to finish first.
During her recently concluded senior year at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, Kropp ensured that will be her legacy when she made a grand return to high school swimming after a one-year hiatus and won a CIF Southern Section Division I 100-yard breaststroke title in her final high school meet.
That appearance at Belmont Plaza pool in Long Beach on May 14, in which she also placed third in the 200-indivudual medley and swam in a pair of relay events, served as a sturdy bookend to a prep career that began at the same place with three total titles won — in the 100 breaststroke and two relays — during her dazzling freshman debut.
Along the way, she's carved out an accomplished club swimming resume in the most prestigious national competitions, including the 2008 Olympic trials, and most recently became the national 18-and-under champion in the 200 breaststroke at the 2010 ConocoPhilips National Championships on Aug. 7.
While taking a break from high school swimming as a junior, Kropp took up cross-country and, despite no prior running experience, became the Tologs' top runner in a season that ended in a fifth-place team finish at the Division IV state meet, the best in program history.
Reprising her cross-country role this season, Kropp battled through a late-season leg injury to help the Tologs finish second in the Mission League and return to the CIF Division IV finals, where the team placed ninth.
Her return to high school swimming was the highlight of her senior year, as she led the Tologs back to the top of the Mission League as co-champions with Harvard-Westlake before shining at CIF.
During the season, she broke her own school records in the 200 breaststroke and 200-individual medley and set two new ones in the 50 freestyle and the 100 butterfly. She also won league titles in the 200-individual medley and the 100 breaststroke.
Now, Kropp is off to Princeton University in the fall, with an eye toward even bigger accomplishments ahead.
She recently sat down with News-Press sports reporter Gabriel Rizk to reflect on her myriad high school achievements and ponder what lies ahead in her bright future.
Gabriel Rizk: It was quite a big senior year for you. Now that it's over and you've graduated, have you had a chance to kind of look back on it and let everything sink in?
Andrea Kropp: A little bit. Right after the high school season was over, I was real busy with graduation and all the senior activities that come at the end of the school year and then right after I graduated, it was kind of jumping right into club [swimming] summer long-course season.
So, honestly, I haven't had time to really sit back and let it all sink in yet.
GR: Swimming really is a year-round thing for you. You never really get a break from that, do you?
AK: No, not really, because by the time I'm done with the long-course season it will basically be time to go back to school and start it all over again in college.
GR: Even without much time to reflect, how do you feel about everything that you've accomplished and everything that happened for you this year?
AK: I just feel really great about everything that I've done this school year. It was the perfect wrap-up to all four years at Sacred Heart.
GR: Your first two years in high school, you obviously accomplished a lot in the pool with Sacred Heart and your junior year you took up running and made a pretty nice debut there as far as picking up that new sport. You didn't swim that year, but did you ever consider what it would be like to put the two together in one season and see what a great year you could have from start to finish with both sports?
AK: Honestly, I had no idea at the start of junior year how good I was going to be at running. I wasn't even sure if I was going to make varsity. I wasn't sure what kind of talent I had or anything like that, I just kind of jumped into it just because it looked fun. It really was more of a spur-of-the-moment decision than anything else.
GR: But after you had done a season of cross-country and realized you were pretty good at it and, I would assume, enjoyed it, did you think about it going into your senior when you had already decided to come back to swimming?
AK: Yeah, I was really excited about being able to represent Sacred Heart in both sports, not just doing well in the pool like I had freshman and sophomore year or on the cross-country course like I did junior year.
GR: Can you compare the two sports or talk about what the appeal of both is for you? Are there similarities to you between running and swimming?
AK: I would say what's most common between the two sports is that you can't give up in practice and you have your teammates there to push you all the time. What's different is I think cross-country is more of a team sport, especially compared to club swimming because in club swimming you just go out and swim your own race. In high school swimming, it's a little more team-oriented, but still you don't get the same team aspect as you do in cross-country. But, possibly, that might be because I didn't practice with the high school team for swimming and I did for cross-country, so maybe I'm seeing it differently just because of how I practiced.
GR: You've been involved in swimming a lot longer, or a lot earlier in your life, than running. Were you able to apply any of the things you had learned from competitive swimming to running?
AK: I would say probably the ability to focus on your race even though sometimes someone may be out faster than you. If you just stick to your race plan in both swimming and running, it will be what takes you further.
GR: Swimming is your more dominant sport, but how do you feel getting involved in running made you a more well-rounded high school athlete?
AK: I think I learned a lot about leadership from cross-country that I was able to apply to my swimming.
My freshman year of swimming I came in and I was the fastest on the team, but I was still the baby on the team, so even though I was the fastest no one really looked up to me as a leader because I was the youngest there, not just grade-wise, but I was a whole year younger than the rest of the people in my grade.
But being able to be a leader on the cross-country team really helped me senior year to step up and guide the younger people on the swim team.
GR: You had an injury — a pulled tendon — during the cross-country season. Did that force you to consider how committed you were to cross-country as far as continuing to compete with an injury, as opposed to just taking up the sport for fun, and how concerned were you about that injury possibly affecting your swimming?
AK: That's kind of tough. Even though I was injured, I felt like I had made the commitment to running and completing the season for the team. I think my coach [Kirk Nishiyama] really did a good job of making sure that I wasn't going to make the injury any worse. He actually forced me to sit out some of the practices even though I wanted to go run. He really was looking out for what was best for both me as a runner and as a swimmer.
GR: Just as far as racing in general, which is kind of the common aspect between swimming and cross-country, what is it about that particular form of athletic competition that seems to bring out the best in you? Or more simply, why are you so good at sports that are based on racing?
AK: I think that in racing versus, say, playing a team sport such as soccer or softball or something, you have a focus and you know exactly what your plan is going to be for the race. Whereas in other sports, you have a lot more variables in terms of how the other team is playing and how the other players on your team are playing. So, I think you're able to have a better plan and more control over the outcome.
GR: You've talked before about how glad you were to come back to high school swimming this year and how important that was to you. Was there a defining moment of this swimming season for you, something you can point to and say, "This is why I came back?"
AK: I would say CIF finals. It was really funny, I thought, how it turned out that my placement in the breaststroke and IM were exactly my placement in CIF freshman year — first and third. It was really funny, I felt, how I just came full circle between freshman and senior year.
GR: That was definitely a big moment for you. What about the timing of those big moments within the timeline of the high school season? You have to make sure you peak at the right time and are primed to do your best for the biggest meets. Can you talk about the pacing of the high school season and the challenges that poses as far as being at your best when you most need to be?
AK: In the high school season it's definitely hard to compete week after week after week and be able to continue your training at the same level when it's being constantly interrupted by meets every week. It was a little bit of a challenge adjusting to that after I sat out my junior year, but I felt that I did a good job of being able to continue my training even after high school meets by coming straight to club practice after.
GR: A lot of people I've talked to about you have praised your work ethic, how much time you spend practicing and how you're always trying to get better. You've already talked about how the season never ends and it's just practice after practice, but can you describe how tough your training and workout regimen is and what keeps you motivated to put in all those hours in the pool?
AK: Honestly, I just love swimming. When I don't swim, I just feel like I have loss of focus and even though people say, "How do you get your homework done with you swimming schedule?" if I don't go to swim practice that day, I still spend the same amount of energy on other things, I would just spend more time doing nothing.
It's just something that keeps me focused and going to practice every day with teammates that I love being around really helps me stay focused.
GR: Everything you were able to accomplish swimming freshman year set the bar really high for you. Did you ever feel pressure after that to live up to that standard and continue to meet that level of success?
AK: Personally, I don't feel a lot of pressure from other people; I kind of put the pressure on myself to do well, so even though I think after freshman year I was kind of defined as "The Swimmer," I didn't feel much pressure from other people to perform. I felt it from myself.
GR: Is that something you rely on for motivation?
AK: That's something that gets me through the hardest part of workouts. Whenever we're doing a tough, grueling set, I think, "Look what you've accomplished; you can do even better," and that's what helps me.
GR: Whether it's your individual titles or the relays you won freshman year, which CIF title means the most to you?
AK: I think probably my freshman year relay titles were the most significant to me because I love how [Briana Swinney, Alex Marquez, Tricia Dobson and I] all worked together as a team. We got the title and we also earned All-American and it just felt really good for me to experience that with the other people on my team.
GR: What does high school swimming offer you that you can't replicate in club swimming?
AK: The ability to work together as a team. In club swimming, you're happy for the other swimmers on your team's success and everything, but in high school, you really have to work together and every person is important to the team, whether they score one point or as many points as possible because every point counts.
I love the fact that you have to cheer for every single person on the team and every person makes a difference.
GR: How rewarding was it for you to come back to Sacred Heart swimming and help that team rise back to the top and share the league title and get more people to CIF?
AK: It was extremely rewarding. I saw how disappointed the other girls on the team were when they [lost the league title]. It just was great being able to regain that title, not just for myself but for the rest of the team.
GR: Being back at CIF this year with those relays, was that a special thing for you considering how much it meant to you freshman year to have that experience?
AK: Yeah, it was great because we had two freshmen on the relays. It just kind of reminded me of my freshman year because I had such a great time at CIF doing the relays.
GR: You broke or set four school records. Is it important for you to leave your mark that way, as well?
AK: Yeah, it was great to be able to break my own record this year, but the two other events I hadn't really swam freshman year. It was nice to be able to branch out and show that I'm not just a breaststroker and an IMer. I can do other things, as well.
GR: A lot of times you are known as a breaststroke specialist. How did you come to be strongest in that stroke?
AK: That's always been my best stroke. I remember when I was about 6 or 7, my club coach actually said to my mom, "She's going to be breaststroker," but I actually didn't know about that until way later. It was really funny how even from an early age that was what I gravitated towards.
GR: What's the most exciting thing about the biggest meets you've participated in, such as Olympic trials or the National Championships that you just came from?
AK: I'd say, going back to [2010 National Championships] in my 200 breaststroke finals, I was sitting in the ready room in between Rebecca Soni and Amanda Beard and it just kind of defined the nature of Nationals.
I've been looking up to Amanda Beard as a role model and as a breaststroker for I don't know how many years and now here I am getting the chance to race against her. I was just awestruck by the fact that I'm finally getting the chance to race them and be in almost the same league as them.
GR: What's your biggest or favorite moment on that kind of big stage?
AK: I would say Olympic trials when I got 28th in the 200 breaststroke because at the time I had just turned 14 the week before and I had just been swimming to better my own times instead of looking at the bigger picture matching myself up against athletes who are older than me and have been swimming for longer than me. I hadn't realized that I was that high nationally. I had just been going after my own personal goals of bettering my times.
GR: What are your plans for the big picture of your future swimming, as far as Princeton or future forays into the Olympics and national/international competition?
AK: I hope to win NCAA titles in either breaststroke or IM and I'm hoping to make the 2012 Olympic team for London.