RIPON – With long red hair blowing in the wind and a neck full of gold, Erika Brown owns the pool deck at the Ripon Aquatic Center.
She is stunning and remarkable, and even has a small entourage that bounces behind her, including one who clings to her glass trophy as if it were crafted from crystal.
Brown has the look and credentials of a teen-aged superstar, no doubt, but …
She is timid and shy, hiding behind those locks. She fumbles with her medals, and when the conversation turns toward her athletic prowess and potential, she is remarkably soft-spoken.
“She’s a very humble, humble person; a very light-hearted girl,” said Erik Zador, Brown’s swim coach with Ripon Aquatics and Ripon High.
“She loves competition and the hype of the atmosphere, but when it comes to her personally she doesn’t know what to do with it.”
Brown better get used to the attention. Her recent times have put her in exclusive company.
Brown’s four-day experience at the Far Western Short-Course Championships ended with seven personal records, seven medals, four victories, two meet records and one interview with Swimming World magazine.
She nearly came away with her age group’s high-point trophy, too.
The performance has put the 14-year-old freshman on the Olympic track, chasing times that belong to Olympian Natalie Coughlin and Modesto’s Karlee Bispo, a star at Texas and an Olympic Trials qualifier.
“I was pretty surprised, but I always set high goals for myself,” Brown said. “I’m happy with where I’m at.”
Brown won the 50-meter freestyle, 200 backstroke, and set Far Western meet records in the 100 free (50.51 seconds) and 200 free (1:49.25).
Her time in the 200 back of 2:02.05 is roughly two seconds off the pace set by Coughlin, a 12-time Olympic medalist, when she competed amongst 13- and 14-year-olds.
And to think, the Far Western Championships were meant only as a tune-up. The payoff was supposed to come next month at the Sac-Joaquin Section championships at Tokay High School.
Zador took five swimmers to the Far Western meet to gauge their training in a fast pool.
“We didn’t look to this meet as a high-end meet for us,” he said. “We were using this meet as a see-where-we-are-in-our-training meet. It was a prep meet. This wasn’t the meet we had to go to.
“We’ve been working hard since January and the kids have been slowly getting faster and faster. It ended up being a really spectacular meet and puts us in a great place to see what happens with these kids at sections.”
There were banner performances from each of the five Ripon Aquatics swimmers, including Ty Wells. The seventh-grader at St. Anthony’s set personal bests in the 50- and 100-meter freestyles, as well as the 100 and 200 butterfly despite missing pool time with a cold.
“Ty competed a lot better than I thought he would,” Zador said of the 13-year-old. “He was sick before this meet, so I had no expectations. I thought he’s swim OK, but he had some spectacular times considering her was two or three weeks behind everyone else.”
However, Brown was the unequivocal star for Ripon Aquatics at a meet that drew the best age-group swimmers from all over the West Coast and parts of Canada.
She finished second to rival Lauren Green of Quicksilver (San Jose) in her age group’s high-point competition, but beat Green in three of their head-to-head duals.
Brown beat her in the 50, 100 and 200 free. She proudly displayed the 200 free gold medal on Monday afternoon, anointing it the crowning jewel of her weekend haul.
In that race, Brown and Green separated themselves from the rest of the pool.
Brown trailed by the slimmest of margins through 175 meters, but took the lead at the turn and finished fast.
“The environment helped out a lot. It was exciting,” Brown said. “I don’t think I could have swam that fast without my rival Lauren Green. I was thankful she was there.”
Brown now turns her attention to the final meets of the high school swim season. She’ll compete this weekend at the Stanislaus County Championships at Johansen, where the one they call “Tweety Bird” will bird-dog freestyle marks held by Bispo.
And then it’s off to sections.
“She thrives in those kinds of meets. She loves the environment – the competition,” Zador said. “She’s definitely a gutsy swimmer who won’t ever give up. Those kinds of environments push her to better times.”