The Buddy System


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Friendship shows itself at the most trying times. For Sarah Lindberg, Kerry Urso and Janel Danchak, the Joe Jacoby Invitational, an event they swam as part of their year-round commitment to Occoquan Swimming, became the platform for one their most memorable bonding experiences.

“I had a very hard time swimming this year, and Janel did too,” said Urso, who swims for Stonewall Jackson during the high school season. “We did horrible at this meet.”

Urso and Danchak sat in a corner after the performances they deemed so terrible. They sat for an hour after the meet ended by Urso’s recollection, talking and crying. Lindberg joined them in the corner, disappointed with her own performance.

“We were all crying,” said Urso. “But we were all smiling because we were there together.”

The trio spends nearly two-dozen hours per week swimming together (with a fourth swimmer, Gar-Field’s Liz Penning) as part of the National Training Group at Occoquan. When the foursome takes the starting blocks in Monday’s Northwest Region Championships as high school opponents, they each want to win. But the friendships formed in swimming hold them together tighter than team rivalries can split them.

“Pretty much every single team we have a friend on,” says Lindberg, a junior and captain for the Vikings.

Sometimes friends get matched up head-to-head.

“When we get stuck racing each other,” said Urso, “both of us want to get our best times.”

But at the same time, they do support each other.

“It shows that everyone can be friends,” Urso said.

Lindberg and Danchak, two of Woodbridge’s leading contributors, don’t deny that there are competitive rivalries between teams and individuals. But for the most part, they say they get along with their rivals.

“I love Brett [MacLennan],” says Danchak, “we’re best friends with Liz [Penning] on Gar-Field, so it kind of lessens the rivalry personally.”

But things did get pretty heated between the two teams when the Viking girls edged the Indians in Saturday’s Cardinal District Championships.

At the regionals in Chatham, even folks from four-time champion Woodbridge figure that Osbourn Park is the girls team favorite.

“Our biggest team goal is to place as high as we can,” says Danchak.

“And take as many people to states as possible,” adds Lindberg.

Finishing each other’s sentences is just one byproduct of a friendship formed in the early morning at the pool.

Five mornings a week at 4:40 a.m., Lindberg, Danchak, Urso and Penning take part in an hour-and-thirty-five-minute year-round practice. Three days a week it’s designed to be difficult training, and on those days it is followed by an after-school session. Twice a week, the group gets a “break,” having only morning swim practice, designed for recovery.

It sounds crazy, but like many year-round swimmers, joining the carpool to the pool before the sun comes up is a part of life.

Lindberg grew up in a swimming family. Her older sister, Bethany, swam for Woodbridge and recently graduated from the University of Texas, where she attended on a scholarship. Her older brother Christian swam for the Vikings and attends Virginia Tech.

Until MacLennan shattered Christian’s 100-yard freestyle record on Saturday, each of the older Lindberg siblings held two Cardinal District records.

Sarah Lindberg has been swimming as long as she can remember, joining summer league at age four and passing up Saturday morning cartoons for 6:30 a.m. trips to the pool to watch her older siblings. Her father Bob also coached.

“I was always kind of like ‘I want to do what they’re doing,” Sarah said. “Swimming has always been a part of my life.”

Danchak comes from a similarly athletic family, where triathalons, ironman competitions and marathons were part of mother Alexis and father Richard’s routine. Janel jumped into the pool at age 10.

“Basically, my Dad gave me an ultimatum, swimming or running,” she said.

Danchak had tried soccer and hated it. Lindberg says she wasn’t graceful enough for dancing, and neither soccer nor horseback riding suited her.

“Swimming is the one that fit,” says Lindberg. “It’s in our genes.”

Some mornings, the swimmers are concerned with how the jeans fit. Since before-school practices leave little time to go home and change, fashion decisions are made in the Chinn Center locker room. Danchak and Lindberg have depended on each other for that kind of advice since middle school.

Danchak was an eighth-grader and Lindberg in seventh when carpooling to swimming brought them together. Soon, they were swimming with Urso and Kara Verducci, who later went to high school at Bishop Ireton.

“We just clicked that year,” said Danchak.

With Penning, they moved up through the year-round ranks together.

“All four of us, we just all kind of work together,” said Danchak.

Out of school, from sleepovers to shopping, they stick together as well. Swimming makes it easy, because when their friends that don’t swim want to go out on a Friday or Saturday night, the other swimmers understand what it’s like to be tired from practices and meets.

“We’re so close because we swim the 21 hours a week together,” Danchak says.

“I feel closer with them than anyone, ” said Urso. “Those are my sisters in life. People are like ‘don’t you get enough of them?’ You can’t get enough.”

In the water, the foursome is quite competitive.

Danchak, who plans to swim at James Madison, won Cardinal District titles in the breast stroke and individual medley last season, and followed with first-place finishes in the 50 and 500 freestyles this season. Her best event may be breast stroke, where she and Penning have nearly identical times. The Vikings needed her to come through in the freestyle races instead at the district meet.

“Janel and I have the biggest competitive sides ever,” says Gar-Field’s MacLennan.

In year-round practice, where the two are among few breast strokers, MacLennan says Danchak pushes her.

Like Lindberg, MacLennan also says Danchak is a good friend.

“She’s always there supporting me,” he said.

Lindberg, who on Saturday successfully defended her district butterfly and backstroke titles from last year, matches her contribution to the team out of the water.

“She’s a great sport, she has the best sportsmanship ever,” said MacLennan. “You see her behind every block cheering her teammates on, whether they’re finishing in first or finishing in eighth. It’s amazing. Most people get tired, but she’s up and going the whole time.”

“She’s very involved in the social part of the high school swim team,” said Nancy Doggett, who coaches at Woodbridge and year-round at QDD.

Doggett said Lindberg goes above and beyond what is required of year-rounders, staying involved with her junior teammates, helping recruit schoolmates to the team and volunteering her home for team pasta parties.

For Lindberg, it’s all about staying immersed in a sport that’s been a big part of her life.

That, and staying near her closest friends in the world.

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