As the last race concludes, she shifts her weight back and forth in anticipation. The shrill of a whistle pierces her concentration as she’s splashed with water from the previous contender exiting the pool. She hears the call to marks, and ascends her block. Atop her mantle, she looks to each of her competitors; little are they aware of what is to come. Her gaze turns out across the water. A sigh escapes her and she shivers, the last of her nerves twitching away and confidence steeling over. With the call to set she coils her body and stills. She is pure potential energy in perfect poise, awaiting the electronic buzzer to sound and call forth her power. There it is! She’s off.
With grace, she dives beneath the surface, emitting but a gentle ripple among the chaotic splash of her opponents. With strong, rhythmic kicks she propels diagonally through the water, embracing the surface as she breaks and takes her first breath of what will prove a short race. Arm over arm she goes, churning the water behind her, fanning her legs in short strokes. Her body forms a slit along the pool as she cuts her way towards the far side. Sounds are distant echoes, awash in the ebb and flow of her head as she twists side to side. She glimpses the approaching wall and prepares her turn. With a quick tuck and twist, she’s heading home.
Her muscles begin to ache, but she ignores their pleas. It’s all glory in front of her, the taste of victory she’s come to love. She powers herself forward, arms numb but invigorated with a spirit that will not concede. Her fingers extend and meet smooth tile and at last she stops, relief washing over her. Teammates cheer and congratulate, and as she clutches the buoy to recover, she gazes at the scoreboard to behold her time. This is freshman Sarah Arpag.
To understand the competitive rise of Sarah, you have to go back. Back before the races and rankings, when Sarah was like any kid beginning to swim: Eager to learn, excited to start and simply enjoying the water.
“My friends and brother began swimming and it just seemed like a good thing to do,” said Sarah. “I was around four or so when I started, and just kept going up in the swimming groups. I was having a lot of fun and getting better.”
“Better” by Sarah’s standard is different than most. By age 11, she was competing at the top level for her age group in regional meets, and showed all signs of becoming an elite swimmer. Just as she was coming into her own, however, the Arpag family made a unanimous decision to embark on a two year expedition through the south Pacific. Yeah, read that again: The Arpag family sailed throughout the south Pacific Ocean for two years straight. Peter and Karen Arpag, Sarah’s parents, explained the thinking behind such an outing.
“For years, Karen and I had the dream to live in a different way,” said Peter Arpag. “We wanted to travel and explore different cultures while living a simple life, and share that experience with our kids. We trained and prepared as a family for such a sailing voyage and in 2015, we managed to move the family aboard our Valiant 40-foot sailboat.”
Setting sail from Hood River, the Arpags sailed down the coast to Mexico, then to French Polynesia and through the islands of the South Pacific. They spent six months in New Zealand before turning back and stopping at Tahiti and Hawaii on the journey home. This family of four spent stretches of weeks at a time out on the ocean, manning their sailboat as a unit and basking in the splendor of a dream voyage. For Sarah, it was a life changing experience, though it wasn’t without some longing.
“This trip opened my eyes to the rest of the world,” said Sarah. “It provided me with a less sheltered view on the world. However, I missed swimming and was worried I wouldn’t be able to get back to it.”
Her worries would be quelled quite quickly it turns out, as Sarah returned and immediately, and quite literally, threw herself back into the water with a training regime that saw her practicing four hours a day.
“I hoped that the trip would offer Sarah a chance to evaluate what swimming meant to her,” said Karen Arpag. “The result was she returned to the pool with a fierce understanding of what she wanted — to continue swimming because she loved it. That has been the highlight of her swimming for me.”
Sarah returned with a certainty of her choice to swim competitively, and she had the right coach waiting for her.
Shelly Rawding, head coach for both the Hood River Valley Swim Team, a local club, and Hood River Valley High School, has been instructing Sarah for years. While they weren’t close early on, the two have formed a strong bond since Sarah’s return. Rawding knows just how strong a swimmer Sarah is.
“She loves the water,” said Rawding. “She has a great feel for it and can easily do the drills and exercises I give her. She’s an amazing competitor as well, always racing to the best of her ability, never leaving anything left. That trait, giving 100 percent effort, is going to take her far in life and it’s exciting to see what lies ahead for her.”
The future is bright indeed for Sarah. At the young age of 14, she is competing for both HRVHS and the Hood River club team and performing well. She has consistently placed first across a multitude of events in each high school meet this year, and in many maintains a high rank in state. With three more years left to compete and improve, Sarah has time to climb and become a top tier swimmer.
“I feel like I’m at the bottom of the top,” said Sarah. “I’m excited to train more and get to a higher level. I want to be better.”
It’s early to begin planning for the future beyond high school and club swimming, but Sarah has some goals she’s striding towards.
“I want to eventually go to nationals, swim in division I at college, and hopefully compete in the Olympics,” said Sarah. “The Olympics would be amazing of course, but I know for sure I want to swim in college. I haven’t thought too much about it, but there are definitely goals in mind.”
The road to such goals is tough; only a few thousand swimmers across the nation compete at the division I collegiate level, and a sheer handful from that pool compete professionally. Sarah’s ambitions are grand, but for someone with her grit and focus, they aren’t as out of reach as they seem.
“There’s no way to say it delicately — the girl is a tire-biter,” said Peter Arpag. “She’s fierce and determined and competitive, sometimes obnoxiously so. She has always been happier and more comfortable in the water, but it’s that relentless drive to be her best that makes that kid go fast.”
Only a parent could put it as perfectly as that. The Arpag family has a lot to be proud of with Sarah. Behind every athlete’s success story stand people in their life who helped them achieve greatness. For Sarah, it’s her family, friends and Coach Rawding.
“My family supports me, they never push me or get upset,” said Sarah. “Shelly is always there to help me, she’s crucial to my swimming success. I wouldn’t be where I am without all of them.”
As to what the future holds, only time will tell.
For now, Sarah continues to train rigorously and compete passionately in her swimming journey. If she continues to do so, I’m willing to wager those goals become reality real quick.