Sitting beside the swimming pool at the Coralville Recreation Center, Lilian Zhu turned her head slowly over her shoulder and glanced at the large white board above the far end of the pool.
The board stretches the width of the pool and lists in plain black writing all of the school swimming records at West High.
Zhu knows the board well. Very well.
“I have those things memorized,” Zhu said of the school records.
For as long as she can remember, she has imagined seeing her own name on the board.
The West High senior learned how to swim just feet from the board in the shallow end of the very pool that she has spent hour after hour in as a four-year letter winner at West High.
As a child, Zhu would tag along to the pool with her father, a former swimmer and coach, and her older sister, and splash in the shallow end.
That ended one day when Zhu’s father looked up to see his younger daughter backstroking unannounced and unprompted across the pool.
“I remember being there watching my dad and my sister and seeing someone swimming laps and thinking I could do that,” Zhu said. “I was like, ‘Dad, look at me.’ And he said, ‘Actually, that’s not that bad.’ “
From that day on Zhu has been a swimmer.
She started swimming on a club team when she was 6 years old, competing in meets year-round.
By her freshman year at West, Zhu knew she made the right choice in choosing swimming.
“I tried a lot of other sports in junior high but swimming seems to be the one that stuck,” Zhu said. “I can’t dribble a ball, I can’t throw a ball and I can’t bat things, but swimming always was pretty natural.”
That natural talent along with Zhu’s swimming background has helped her to an impressive prep career at West.
A four-year letter winner and three-time state qualifier, Zhu has put together a striking swimming resume.
She was a first team all-state selection as a sophomore in 2011 in the 100-yard butterfly after placing third at the state meet and was a second-team pick that same year in the 200 freestyle, placing fifth.
Zhu helped the West 200 medley relay team to a fifth place state meet finish and was on the 400 freestyle relay team that finish sixth at state in 2011.
As a freshman in 2010, Zhu placed sixth at the state meet in the 100 backstroke and last year she finished in the top 10 in both the 100 backstroke and the 100 freestyle.
She finished ninth in the 100 backstroke and 10th in the 100 freestyle at last year’s state meet and was a member of the West High 200 medley relay team that placed eighth.
“Lilian is very easy to coach,” West High coach Coach Rob Miecznikowski said. “Her stroke techniques are very, very good, and that is kind of the key to the sport. There are two things in this sport, number one is your stroke technique and number two is how hard and you are willing to work, and she pretty much covers both of those pretty well and that has been the key to her success.”
Miecznikowski calls Zhu an “extremely versatile” swimmer, which shows in her state meet performances.
In her career, Zhu has competed in five different events at the state meet, notching top-six finishes in all of them.
“Her versatility is a huge strength, and it really helps the team,” Miecznikowski said. “In dual meet competition, the versatility is what can make or break your season.”
With all the individual success Zhu has enjoyed in her high school career, she prefers to focus on the success West High has had as a team.
In Zhu’s first three years on the varsity team, West has finished in the top 10 at the state meet all three times.
The Trojans were ninth at the state meet in Zhu’s freshman season in 2010 and followed that up with a sixth-place finish in 2011 and a 10th-place showing last year.
“The great thing about high school swimming is you do it for the team, the team’s needs come ahead of yours,” Zhu said. “I think that is one of my favorite things about it, is you are competing for a higher thing than just yourself. Swimming is a really individual sport. Obviously, you have your team at practice with you, but when it comes down to it, it is a really individual sport, so having that team aspect with high school swimming is one of my favorite things.”
Zhu is hoping to finish her career on a high-note this season.
The senior has the top time this season on West’s team in three events and is second in two others.
Zhu and her teammates have a couple of big meets coming up as they take part in the Mississippi Valley Conference meet at noon Saturday at the Mercer Park Aquatic Center and return to Mercer on Nov. 2 for the regional meet.
“I want to do as well for the team as I can at these meets,” Zhu said. “For me, it’s always been just about having my best time. The times get so much faster each year, but if my best time doesn’t rank as well as it would have in past years but it’s still a best time, I’m OK with that. As long as I can beat that record, I’m OK with that.”
Through all the years of swimming, all the meets, all the medals, there is still one thing that has eluded Zhu during her career: a spot on the board.
“I’m looking at a couple of those records because I’ve been chasing those for like four years and I’ve been missing a bunch of them by a little bit,” Zhu said, looking again at the board. “I’d like to get a few of those records.”
The 100 backstroke record is the one that Miecznikowski says Zhu covets the most.
“I know that her goal is the school record in the 100 backstroke,” Miecznikowski said. “We see where Lilian is right now in her 100 backstroke and I think she is a little frustrated. She wants to be under a minute and she is at 1:00.01. Even though that is a little milestone for her to get under one minute, I think at the state meet she is going to blow that away.”
The West record in the 100 backstroke is 59.35. Zhu says her personal best time of nearly a full second and a half under that time came during the 2012 club season.
She went 59.53 in the 100 backstroke at the state meet in 2010 but hasn’t been able to match the school record during her prep career.
Zhu also has been close to the West record of 53.34 in the 100 freestyle, her best prep time in the event is 53.56.
However, it is the backstroke record that causes Zhu to stare at the board a little longer this time.
“I’ve had that time, I just haven’t been able to do it during high school season,” Zhu said. “That is like my major annoyance that I just have not been able to resolve. It annoys me. Hopefully, I’ll get it this season.”
With or without a spot on the board, Zhu says she’d like to keep swimming when she leaves West later this year, as long as she can find a school that fits with her plans to study sports medicine.
Miecznikowski said Zhu will have opportunities to swim in college if she chooses to.
“She can swim Division I,” Miecznikowski said. “I think kind of where you want to be in college swimming is you don’t want to be the fastest on the team as a freshman because you don’t have anyone to push you and you don’t want to come in at the bottom. Find a school where you would fit in and where they need you and you have a couple of athletes that you could drive off of that will push you.”