Bishop Verot junior swimmer Shae Clifton exits the water seven-days-a-week with purpose.
Because at 5-foot-4, she’s often competing against athletes with longer arms and legs.
But dominance isn’t about length as much as it is about will. Clifton owns two top-20 times nationally in her 16-year-old class in the 100-yard breaststroke and the 200-yard individual medley, according to USA Swimming.
“Regardless of her size, she goes toe-to-toe with every athlete that is next to her,” Clifton’s mother, Thu Phan, said. “I think with her training and her hard work and persistence, she’s been able to compete with people that are twice her size.”
And yet, success in Class A swimming isn’t always a foregone conclusion. In November, she’ll likely face competitors who qualified for the Olympic trials at the state championships.
So confidence has been a trait the junior carries with her at all times too. Clifton has not only set her goal on two state medals in 2016, but hopes to one day earn a college scholarship.
“If you’re taller you definitely have an advantage, but if you have the muscle and keep working hard, you can beat anyone,” said Clifton, whose dream is to swim for Florida State University. “It doesn’t matter. They don’t intimidate me.”
She’s part of a very accomplished Bishop Verot team that recently won the Catholic Invitational in Orlando on Oct. 3. Clifton finished first in the 200 IM in a season-best 2:12.79, while she was second in the 100 breaststroke in 1:08.95.
She also competes on the Vikings’ 200 medley and 400 free relays.
“Sometimes it’s just your God-given ability that will get you through,” Bishop Verot coach Jason Baumgardner said. “What you actually do when it comes down to it is up to you. There will be better athletes ahead of you most everywhere you go, but who was ready at that certain time?”
Clifton trusts her training. She swims at the Fort Myers Aquatic Center seven days a week with the Swim Florida club, coached by Mac Kennedy, and has two-a-days at least three times over the period.
“She’s really consistent as far as coming to practice,” Kennedy said. “She never misses. I’m trying to get her to take it up a few degrees in her training. She responds well to that.”
Yet to understand Clifton’s deeper motivations, you have to go back to her mother.
Phan, who can’t swim, immigrated to the United States during the Vietnam War and was sponsored by a church in Michigan. A hip infection prevented Phan from ever getting in the water.
“To be honest, I think it’s a combination of my physical size and the fear of being in the water,” Phan said. “I’m not able to touch the ground.”
While Phan has been around the water since birth, swimming was never a priority. Her mother can’t swim, either.
“My dad was a big fisherman, but swimming wasn’t something we focused on,” she said.
So it was surprising when Clifton drifted toward the water. After trials with soccer, gymnastics and tennis, Phan put her daughter in the water at 7 not thinking it would stick. Her brother and stepfather taught her the basics.
Clifton immediately took to it.
Since then, Phan has been amazed by her daughter’s transformation. For the past nine years, Clifton has trained with Swim Florida and has traveled the state and along the East Coast competing in events.
“When she gets to a meet, she just really wants to get to the wall first,” Kennedy said. “She’s very competitive.”
Clifton said she’s proud of her Vietnamese heritage and that it helps drive her to outwork her competition.
“The traditional Vietnamese culture stresses academics and so you normally see the kids focus on academics,” said Phan, who along with her husband attends nearly all of her daughter’s meets. “You rarely see kids who are both successful academically and in the field, but Shae has done both.”
“It definitely inspires me to be different and represent my culture and especially my mom,” Clifton said.
As a freshman, she was part of a state medal winning relay team, but as a sophomore did not place outside of region and district competition.
However, experience has taught her how to manage competing at higher levels.
“You only get one chance to make it,” Clifton said. “If you’re having a bad day or something happens, you might not make that time, so there is a lot of pressure. You have to be confident in your training.”
That’s the purpose Clifton carries with her every day.