By Meredith Kennedy
On a cool December afternoon, Annie Zhu stood in the hallway of Brooklyn Technical High School before leaving for her second swim practice of the day. Zhu, a 15-year-old sophomore, is tall with long dark hair and has the classic swimmer “V” shape—a small waist and broad shoulders—that are only sculpted through tireless laps in the pool. She is currently ranked in the top ten in the nation in her age group, with her 200-meter and 400-meter individual medley times in the top three.
Zhu thinks about her dream—to win an Olympic medal—every morning when she wakes up at 4:30 a.m. for practice and before she takes the first plunge into the pool. Whether she is in school, underwater, or being shuttled between practices, the Olympics are on Zhu’s mind.
Zhu wore jeans and a USA Swimming sweatshirt from a recent meet and carried a heavy textbook in her hand. She had just finished making up the Chinese exam she missed while she was in Seattle last week competing in the Short Course National Meet.
This was less than an hour before Zhu’s second practice of the day with Agua Swim Team, Manhattan’s premiere competitive club team, on the Upper East Side and one of the top teams in the Northeast. She was coming off a day of rest due to shoulder pain, a common injury among competitive swimmers often due to overuse. After all, November was her busiest month this year.
In addition to daily practices with Agua, Zhu competed with the Brooklyn Tech Engineers varsity team during the fall, which she says is more focused on teamwork. Zhu’s name takes up the majority of the record board at Tech, and Coach Maureen O’Hara is grateful to have her as a key anchor to a fast relay, and an example to the other girls.
In addition to advancing to the public school championship with the team for the first time in over twenty years, Zhu’s medley relay team also qualified for the state championship, a difficult feat at a young age. The Engineers, the underdog of the meet, lost to powerhouse Stuyvesant High School by a mere 17 points. “We were happy to even make the finals,” Zhu said.
After the high school season, Zhu traveled to Europe to race in part of the World Cup series in Sweden and Germany, where she faced strong international competition. Her goal is simple. Train hard and make the Olympic swim team. “I’m happy because if I didn’t start swimming, I don’t know what I would be doing,” Zhu said.
Today, Zhu’s parents need to pick up Zhu by 4 p.m. otherwise she may be late for her evening practice. In traffic, it could take over an hour. “Usually I do my homework in the car,” Zhu said with a smirk. “I’m used to it by now.”
She knows, too, that if she doesn’t do her work in the car, she’ll be up late and won’t get enough sleep for practice the next day. Sleep, Zhu knows, is an important part of the Olympic equation. When she’s not in the water perfecting her stroke (breaststroke is her specialty), Zhu often plays back the tapes she has from the 2000 and 2004 Olympic games to keep her goal in check. “I enjoy watching people break records,” Zhu said.
Zhu took her first steps on a pool deck and was swimming before she turned one. Her parents, Kenny and Linda, are both experienced swimmers from China. Together they head the American Swimming Learning Center at James Madison High School in Midwood. Since 1995, they have taught over 1,500 students how to swim.
After her weekend practices with Agua, which Zhu says are the most grueling, she helps her parents at the learning center, along with her older brother, Alan, 24 and sister, Angela, 22, also swimmers. “In my house it’s 24 hours talking about swimming,” Zhu said.
At the 2008 Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, where she was one of the youngest competitors, Zhu qualified for the 100-and 200-meter breaststroke and 200-meter individual medley trials. She finished 78th out of a pool of 105 in the 100-meter breaststroke, 56th of 90 in the 200-meter breaststroke, and 87th of 114 in the 200-meter individual medley, an impressive feat at such a young age. Zhu also made the cut for the 400-meter individual medley after the trials.
Zhu said her experience helped prepare her for the next time around so she won’t be nervous. For now, she is focused on achieving her goal one step at a time and looking ahead to her next big meet in January. “I think I get Christmas day off from practice,” Zhu said as she headed toward her parents’ car to drive to another practice.