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Amanda Sims leaves a lasting legacy

 Before she was even a teenager, Amanda Sims was an inspiration.

When she was 12, Sims sat in a Starbucks in Santa Rosa and answered questions from Maya DiRado, a starry-eyed 7-year-old.

The purpose of their meeting was DiRado?s third-grade project. The assignment? Tell the class about your hero.

For a young swimmer such as DiRado, Sims, then a sixth grader at Strawberry Elementary, inspired more awe than any Olympian.

Six years later, DiRado, like Sims before her, has qualified for the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials at age 13 and is one of the more precocious talents in Redwood Empire history.

She is following in the footsteps of her hero, the one who opened the curtain to a new world.

?Amanda set the standard for what we could accomplish,? said DiRado, a freshman at Maria Carrillo. ?We saw her go to the Trials and we saw that it was possible. I don?t know if we would have thought that if Amanda wasn?t here.?

Sims, a senior at Montgomery High, will be leaving more than records in her wake when her prep career ends at the two-day North Coast Section Championships in Concord, which open with today?s trials.

A humble prodigy who has nurtured her talent with equal parts grit and grace, she?ll also leave a legacy.

A powerful example

When Sims qualified for the 2004 Olympic Trials in the 100- and 200-yard butterfly, she was the second female swimmer from the Empire to reach the Trials, and the first in 20 years.

Three years later, three Santa Rosa swimmers ? Sims, DiRado and Santa Rosa High freshman Molly Hannis ? have qualified for the ?08 Trials.

The timing is no coincidence.

DiRado and Hannis swim with Sims on the Santa Rosa Neptunes, a 52-year-old club in Santa Rosa. They train in an 18-person group of boys and girls ? the Senior Elite ? and practice together at least seven times a week.

For other top swimmers, Sims? everyday example has been as powerful as her stroke.

?She?s been the best role model a coach could ever ask for,? said Neptunes coach Dan Greaves. ?How often do you get a superstar who is also the hardest worker? We?ve held Amanda up and said ?This is how hard you could and should work. She?s not a freak. She?s gotten to this point because of X, Y and Z. Everyone is going to do X, Y and Z now.??

To fully appreciate Sims? influence, it is best to review her body of work.

At 10, she set a national age-group record in the 100 butterfly, the first of her three since-broken national marks. At 13, she was the youngest swimmer in the country to compete in the U.S. Swimming Championships. As an eighth grader at Slater Middle School, her butterfly times ranked as all-time Empire bests. Her marks prompted her first recruiting mail. UCLA sent the 14-year-old a media guide.

At 15, as a freshman, she broke the 100-fly record set by two-time gold medalist Natalie Coughlin at the NCS Championships. As a sophomore, she broke her own NCS record with a time ? 53.26 seconds ? that would have placed fifth at that year?s NCAA Championships.

A top prospect

She owns 13 Pacific Swimming age-group records, a region that encompasses Northern California and western Nevada. She also has four all-time Empire individual records and is on two record-holding relay teams, placing her name on six of 11 Empire swimming records.

She was wooed by the nation?s top college programs before selecting national power Cal, where head coach Teri McKeever says Sims is a can?t-miss recruit.

?The reality is if Amanda didn?t get better and stayed the same as she is now,? McKeever said, ?she?d still help any college program in the nation.?

For all her accomplishments, Sims isn?t the most decorated girls swimmer in Empire history. That distinction belongs to Jenna Johnson, who won three medals at the 1984 Olympics.

In examining their careers, however, it?s easy to see why Sims ranks as the area?s most influential.

Johnson joined the Neptunes at 12 and left after her junior year at Ursuline High to train in Southern California.

In contrast, Sims joined the Neptunes at 6 and began inspiring hushed whispers a few years later.

?Everyone always stared at her when she was stretching on the pool deck,? said Kaitie Woo, 19, a longtime friend of Sims who swam with the Neptunes for 10 years. ?They?d be talking about her muscles and stuff like that. It was always this thing like ?Oh, there?s Amanda Sims.??

Path to greatness

Santa Rosa Masters swim coach Hermine Terhorst says Sims is still wowing a legion of young girls.

When Sims recently demonstrated a Pilates exercise to a large group of Neptunes, the elementary schoolers were transfixed.

?You should have seen these 10-, 11- and 12-year-old girls,? Terhorst said. ?Their eyes were as big as saucers. Every little girl on that team wants to be Amanda. Every single one of them.?

The daughter of Paul Sims, an All-American swimmer at Cal, she is blessed with talent.

But for girls such as DiRado, who?ve studied Sims for years, they?ve seen in her a lesson that offers hope.

The path to greatness is difficult, but not complex.

Sims? success, after all, is a testament to two seemingly ordinary principles.

Always show up. Always work hard.

For starters, there is her attendance record.

When asked how many practices she?s missed in the past 12 years, Sims pauses for a few seconds.

?I don?t think I?ve missed any,? she says, almost apologetically.

Greaves, her coach since she was 7, confirms Sims? iron-woman steak, which he estimates, conservatively, at about 1,300 practices since her freshman year.

For perspective, the Neptunes train 50 weeks a year, often at 5:45 a.m., and swim about 45,000 yards (27.3 miles) a week.

No missed alarm clocks. No convenient colds. Sims is as constant as the chlorine at Ridgway Swim Center.

Jennifer Sims, 20, an All-American swimmer at UC San Diego, said she never resented her little sister?s success because she saw what was required to achieve it. She calls Amanda her role model. And she knows what sets her sister apart.

?Everyone has bad days ? days where you?re tired or you really don?t want to swim,? Jennifer said. ?Amanda has those days too, but she always sucks it up. There is never a point at which she slacks off. Other people might take it easy, Amanda never does.?

No shortcuts

For reasons she can?t fully grasp, Sims has always been this way. She was born with an inner voice that has never accepted shortcuts. Her parents aren?t pushy, she says. She just never wants to disappoint herself.

She has a 4.5 GPA ? and a high stress level.

As a young swimmer, she agonized at big meets, often sitting alone before races with a stomachache.

Now young swimmers such as Hannis marvel at Sims? calm in high-pressure settings. Sims laughs. She?s still freaking out inside.

?In school, it?s always been like ?I have to have all A?s ? B?s are not an option,?? Sims said. ?In thinking about college, I thought I had to make sure everything is perfect so no school could have a reason not to accept me. I think I stress a lot. That?s the perfection factor. But I think that helps me more than it hurts me.?

Sims? inner drive is immense, but she has an ability to look well beyond herself, a trait not always shared by elite athletes.

Montgomery coach Mark Stanley was struck when Sims ran to yell encouragement to a last-place junior varsity swimmer earlier this year.

For all her success, Sims relates to those who are far less accomplished. She also understands frustration, she explains. She hasn?t dropped her NCS-record time in the 100 fly since 2005.

?Swimming is humbling,? Sims said. ?We?re working really hard and everyone has their ups and downs. You can relate to anyone who?s trying hard and either had a great race or didn?t have a great race.?

A well-adjusted teen

Sims has competed across the country ? from Phoenix to Fort Lauderdale ? and even in Brisbane, Australia, with the U.S. Junior National team. At 13, she competed in the same heat against Coughlin and another Olympic legend, Jenny Thompson, at the World Championship Trials.

But she still calls the NCS Championships in Concord her all-time favorite meet. Why? She likes competing against so many of her friends.

Says Greaves, ?Amanda is the most well-adjusted teenager who is great at something that I know.?

As a young record-breaking phenom, Sims would cringe when asked about her accomplishments.

She?s learned to handle the spotlight a bit better, but she?s still uncomfortable as the center of attention.

During a recent interview, she fiddled nervously with her necklace ? twisting it with her thumb and index finger ? and was more excited about discussing her fixation with the TV show ?Law & Order? than her swimming accomplishments.

?Growing up with her, a lot of people didn?t know anything about Amanda?s swimming,? Woo said. ?She never brought it up.?

But as her times have dropped and her records have grown, Sims has found it impossible to keep her secret through the years.

Plenty of people know all about Sims, including young girls who hope to follow her example.

In her career, they can find lessons in consistency, humility and kindness, traits that would serve them well if they stopped swimming today.

And for girls such as DiRado who stay in the pool, there is also a lesson in how to achieve Olympic-sized dreams.

It was on display recently at an early morning practice that began with Santa Rosa covered in darkness.

Shortly after sunrise, Greaves stood on the pool deck and shouted instructions. At his command, four swimmers pushed off the wall, with one a heartbeat ahead of the group.

The scene was familiar.

In the early dawn, at another practice, near the sunset of her high school career, Amanda Sims was leading the way.

Eric Branch can be reached at 521-5258 or eric.branch@press democrat.com.