With unofficial “coaches” mom Harvelle and dad Darryl flashing hand signals from high in the stands, sophomore David Stewart psyched himself to swim the best race of his life Saturday.
“Coach couldn’t be here, so he texted me to be positive, go after it and use my speed,” said Stewart of New Rochelle coach Kip Fierro. “It worked.”
Hanging close to the eventual winner for the first leg of the 100-yard butterfly, Stewart finished third at the state high school swimming and diving championships with a personal-best time of 50.37 seconds as his proud parents jumped up and down on the aluminum benches high atop the Webster Aquatic Center.
“He’s a real competitor,” his dad said. “He has a natural feel for the water.”
Stewart and North Rockland senior Brandon Shields, who also was third in the 500 freestyle, led Westchester-Rockland’s Section 1 finishers to seven top-eight performances in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association events and state federation of public and private schools titles, swum concurrently.
“I’ve had a history of weak second legs,” Stewart said, “so I have to concentrate and work hard right to the end. I was successful today. I kept Ryan (the winner, Ithaca’s Ryan Nicholson) in sight, because he was right next to me, and I was pretty close to him after the first leg. I knew then I could have a good race.”
Stewart, an honors student with a 91 average, was voted the Section 1 sportsmanship award and is one of few American-born African Americans who excel in high-level swimming. He and sophomore breaststroker Reginald Bradnock of Ardsley/Hastings/Edgemont were the only two on Section 1’s 54-person team at the meet.
“I’m proud of how well I’ve done,” Stewart said. “My mom got me into swimming lessons at age 3, and I was competing at age 8. I didn’t care for basketball and football that much. I wasn’t very good at them.
“I think a lot of African-American kids were denied the opportunity to swim back in the 70s and 80s. But I was lucky. I got the chance early. My goal is just to see how far it can take me.”
His dad, an information systems specialist for the New York Police Department, said David’s friends are in awe of his achievements. “He’s a novelty. He doesn’t get picked on. Quite the opposite. His peers really admire him for how he’s excelled as a swimmer. Most African-American kids try it and quit. They’re actually afraid of the water.”
“After his first lesson, when he was three,” his mom said, “the next day, he wanted back in the water.”
Shields won a non-final heat in 4:37.77, setting a Rockland County record (beating 4:38.24), and because his time was faster than all but two other public school swimmers in the final eight, was awarded third overall. He also finished sixth in the public schools 200 freestyle in 1:42.89.
“One of my goals was top three, and I pulled it off,” he said. “I was a body length ahead after the first turn in the 500, and I knew then I had a chance to do something special.”
His coach, Dave Holmes, said “I looked him in the eyes just before his race, and I just knew he was going to have a good one. I told him ‘do what you’re capable of.’ “
Other top performances in the public school results were a fifth in the 200 individual medley by Pleasantville senior Ruan Zorgman (1:53.56), a tie for fifth in the 50 freestyle by Keio Academy junior Reo Mukudai (21.54) plus his fifth in the 100 freestyle (46.86), a sixth in the 100 breaststroke by Zorgman (57.82) and two sevenths by Horace Greeley senior Risten Clarke in the 100 (47.21) and 200 freestyles (1:43.19).
According to Section 1 chairman Meg Kaplan, coach at Horace Greeley, it was the first time in several years the section has not returned home with at least one individual or relay champion. Her group finished fifth of nine in scoring by section.
“We brought 54 to the meet,” she said, “and we had a lot of swimmers in finals, and a lot of underclassmen, so that’s all good. It bodes very well for the future.”