PRINCETON: Liu back in water for PHS

Swimmer uses fitness from XC

By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
   Belinda Liu looks forward to getting off the land and into the water every winter for swim season.
   The Princeton High School girls swimmer comes into her senior year off her fourth season of cross country, something that puts her in top cardiovascular shape for the pool and seemingly fit to handle any workout in the water.
   ”That’s what I thought when I quit club swimming,” Liu said. “While you have cardiovascular strength, you lose upper body strength with running. So when you’re swimming you’re breathing fine, but not actually moving anywhere. It’s frustrating. It’s a physical advantage, but mentally it’s a roadblock.”
   Despite the mental roadblock, having a well-conditioned set of lungs has helped Liu contribute for the Little Tigers girls swim team each year, and as her body adapts to the movements it needs to excel in the pool with every week of practice, Liu gets better and better.
   ”She’s a great example of a kid who’s a multi-sport athlete who’s all-in for one season, then goes to the next season and is all-in for that one,” said PHS swim coach Greg Hand, who has also been an assistant coach in track. “She really understands training.
   ”She’s a terrific underwater swimmer,” he added. “Her fly is quick. She’s also got a lot of endurance. She’ll be swimming a lot of IM for us and a lot of relay swimming.”
   The Little Tigers have started the season unbeaten in their first three meets going into Thursday’s scheduled showdown with an improved West Windsor-Plainsboro South squad. PHS topped Trenton on Tuesday in a co-ed meet that counts toward the boys team’s record.
   ”I think there’s a lot of potential,” Liu said. “I can’t say we’re the best in the conference. I’m excited to see how far we go.”
   The Little Tigers are defending Mercer County champions, and winning the county was the latest thrill in Liu’s athletic career. She has been a part of some of the golden years of PHS girls cross country and she has shared in the success of the PHS girls swim program. As a senior, she has been captain of both. She helped a young cross country team sustain a high standard.
   ”I felt really good about it,” Liu said. “There was a lot more challenge in the team than in previous years. It manifested itself in I don’t want to say unprecedented success, but something we’re proud of.”
   She has also tried to stay humble about the Little Tigers’ chance in the pool. PHS lost two of its best swimmers to graduation, Serena Deardorff and Marisa Giglio, but has a strong freshman class to help make up for some of the losses.
   ”There’s so much talent coming in,” Liu said. “My only regret is not being able to see them in future years.”
   Liu sees a freshman class that hasn’t peaked or burned out from year-round swimming, and is ready to contribute. Among the freshman is her sister, Jamie.
   ”She’s a serious swimmer the last two years, and she’s versatile,” Hand said. “She likes to swim distance but is also very quick. Melinda Tang is a very versatile swimmer too. She can do freestyle and a couple strokes. Both of them have contributed a lot already and we’ll look forward to using them in all sorts of ways this season.”
   Liu is trying to enjoy the one season that she and her sister can share together in the pool.
   ”There was a time when I was the athlete of the family,” Belinda said, “but that time has gone.”
   The older Little Tigers swimmers are doing their best to make everyone feel welcome on the team. Liu has a leadership role in it as a captain along with co-captains Taylor Chiang and Kelsey Schwimmer.
   ”The biggest thing in being a captain of the swimming team is knowing how things are done and being able to communicate that to other people and being able to keep the spirit going,” Hand said. “This group has been able to enjoy themselves. Since they’ve been here for four years, they started off as participants and learning how to do things. Now it’s a matter of translating that to the younger kids and finding ways to make that run through the whole team. Now they’re taking on the responsibility of organizing things and taking on the challenge of making a group into a team.”
   Liu wants the team to train hard, but she is also trying to keep it fun. She likes what she has seen of the team’s make-up through the first month of practices and two weeks of meets.
   ”The dynamic is close,” Liu said. “I feel like the entire swim is better friends with every single member now.”
   Being a part of the cross country and swim teams helped Liu find friends four years ago when her family moved into PHS. She remains closest to the cross country team, but has always enjoyed the sport of swimming more. She started swimming in second grade and did club swimming year-round until she was a freshman when she branched out to cross country and track and field for the Little Tigers, who she has continued to swim with for her high school years.
   ”It helped me make new friends,” Liu said. “Everyone in the program is a great person.”
   Having run her final season of cross country, her focus has shifted to the pool and bringing together PHS. There is a culture with the Little Tigers that keeps swimmers performing well.
   ”If someone needs help, no one will hesitate to help them,” Liu said. “If someone is out of line, we’ll reprimand them.”
   The results have shown up in the pool, where PHS has topped Robbinsville, Hopewell Valley and Lawrence in the early going.
   ”Quite a lot of kids have been with us a while and are committed to training and excellence,” Hand said. “In some instances, we go three lanes deep into our lineup in pretty solid fashion. I’m sure you’d also like to have a couple more kids that can do one thing or another, but we’ll be reasonably competitive in our league. We’re really looking forward to swimming the meets and seeing how fast we can get.
   ”We have an experienced crew. In our senior class we also have Lizzy Till. We have a great group of juniors with Hannah Ash, Crystal An, Jessica Bai, Stephanie Tam, Charlotte Singer, Kara Persico — a good experienced bunch. There’s a big junior class that loves the sport and trains hard and has a great level of spirit. We have another freshman — Maddie Whaley, who’s a distance swimmer who’s pretty quick.”
   Liu is off to a better start than in prior seasons. She has been able to contribute sooner than usual.
   ”I think this year’s transition has been the easiest,” Liu said. “In previous years, I’ve missed two weeks in a row because of cross country and I didn’t have the required number of practices. This year, I only missed two practices. It helps knowing what to expect.”
   Liu is hoping she can have a memorable final scholastic season, and she is happy to contribute wherever asked. While she wishes she could be a sprinter, she knows that the longer distance races suit her strengths better.
   ”I’m not cut out for the short-twitch fibers,” Liu said. “I have to ease myself into the racing. It takes about a 25 to get going, and that’s half of the 50.”
   It’s better for her to use the fitness she gained during cross country and build up the swim strokes. Her running helps give her a base to work with, and she is serving as a leader in showing how to develop into a contributor on the strength of her conditioning.
   ”She’s come into swimming from cross country, and they’ll all be working hard and her heart rate is maybe 20 beats below the other people,” Hand said. “She’s very fit by virtue of all the hard work she’s done. She’s also willing to work tired. She leads by example, and she’s got presence on the deck as well.”