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Hernando High swimmer thrives with stroke of passion for pool

BROOKSVILLE — Valerie Smith reaches her arms out at the end of every race and slaps the pool wall, pumping her fists and cheering.

She may have been lengths out of first. Swimming alone. No chance of winning.

It doesn't matter.

"She's like an Olympian when she does it," said her younger sister, Shelby.

Valerie, 19, has been a steadfast member of the Hernando High School swim team for four years.

She practices hard and swims the toughest races. She cheers her teammates louder than anyone else and hugs everyone around her. She graciously high-fives her competitors at the end of a race.

She makes her team better.

One thing she never does: use her Down syndrome as an excuse.

"She's just really inspirational to have on the team," said teammate Autumn Smith, 17. "You see Val going and you're like, 'Wow, I should go, too.' "

"She's there with you and it makes you feel stronger because you know that she's really trying her hardest."

Summer Solovitch, a junior, said her teammate has an unbreakable spirit.

"She's always really happy, so if you're down, she brings you up," Solovitch said. "She's really upbeat."

Today, Valerie will swim in her final meet in Clearwater, the culmination of her high school swim career.

"It's a lot of me," she said. "It's part of me."

Valerie swims the 500-yard freestyle and the 200-yard individual medley, the two longest high school races, said one of her coaches, Mike Bainum. She always has. The individual medley involves all four strokes — freestyle, backstroke, butterfly and breaststroke.

Not everyone can do them.

"Talk about the word 'tenacious,' " said Bainum. "She jumps in. She'll just keep going. She doesn't get tired. It's just amazing."

Bainum said this hard work has allowed her to improve every year. She's not the fastest swimmer on the team, but she's also not the slowest, he said. Especially in practice.

"She never goofs off," he said. "She's always tenacious about it. So the times kept going down going down and going down."

Her teammates say she's always there supporting them.

Whenever they're in the water, she's standing on the pool deck cheering them on.

"Valerie puts us ahead of everything," said junior Caitlin Bainum, 17, the coach's daughter.

"She's a class act," agreed Autumn Smith.

Valerie's mother, Debbie Smith, said she loves to swim but loves it just as much when her teammates succeed.

"She just seems to kind of bring the best out in people," she said, "She's always wanting them to do their best because she always wants to do her best."

She's rewarded for it.

Her outlook extends beyond the swimming pool and the team to every member of the school.

Last week, Valerie was crowned Hernando's homecoming queen.

It brought tears to her mother's eyes. Valerie said she was surprised, covering her mouth with her hands when she found out. "I was so impressed."

Her friends just couldn't stop cheering.

"They started to announce the homecoming king and we were still clapping for Val," Autumn Smith said.

Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432.

Hernando High swimmer thrives with stroke of passion for pool 10/24/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 24, 2012 8:27pm]
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