Sarah Fitzsimmons is a year away from getting her learner’s permit and already trailblazing.
The rising freshman at Collins Hill is one of just 26 water polo players selected to represent the U.S. on a 14-and-under team headed for Barcelona in August. She was picked for the National Training and Selection Camp last year as well, the first Georgian to make a squad in a sport dominated by Californians.
“It’s great to have an ambassador like Sarah out there,” Collins Hill head coach Jarod Stentiford said. “There have been other (Georgia) players who have played D-I out in California, not on a national level per se with her, where she could go or where she’s aiming to go. But we’re definitely getting attention.
“She’s laying the groundwork for future players and the thing is she’s only 14.”
Fitzsimmons has been swimming at the club level since she was 8, but it was happenstance that she got into water polo at 11.
“We were at a moms of multiples meeting and we saw inside the (Collins Hill Aquatic Center) it was going on,” Fitzsimmons said. “I thought it looked cool.”
She’s come a long way in three years. Skills honed at SwimAtlanta helped her flourish in the new sport.
“She’s a great swimmer and it’s always beneficial when you’re a water polo player,” Stentiford said. “It’s the best thing a coach could find, a good swimmer. Also she has good size, which for water polo, especially out in California, is what they look for.
“I gave her the rookie of the year award her first year just because of the way that she improved. She started off timid — a lot of players do — and she’s just kind of grown into the sport.”
Fitzsimmons remembers not wanting to take advice from the boys at her first practice.
“I wouldn’t let any of the guys talk to me,” she said with a laugh. “I would swim away from them and I wouldn’t let them help me.”
Right away, Fitzsimmons was good advancing the ball, aided by her years as a distance breaststroker. Playing soccer when she was younger also paid dividends.
“She’s got great spacial awareness,” Stentiford said. “You can see it on defense and offense. It’s like any sport, it’s a thinking situation. I can teach fundamentals and I can teach you to set up, but what you do with that, some of that is not learned. Some of that is just basic instinct. She’s really, really good at that.”
The egg-beater kicking motion, fundamental to water polo, was another story.
“I had trouble learning that,” Fitzsimmons said. “It took me a couple of months.
“But I really loved it.”
Leaving her nature at the edge of the pool deck was another challenge.
“If you could see Sarah’s shot when she started to what her shot is now, it’s kind of ridiculous,” Stentiford said. “She was a very timid shooter, a very timid player.
“She has a very gentle nature, but when she’s in the pool and when she shoots, it’s incredible. She has an amazing ability in the pool and she has an amazing shot.”
Fitzsimmons thinks she’s gotten better at being scrappy.
“I learned to be a little bit selfish, not too much, but you’ve got to be aggressive,” she said “Playing with California girls, you have to play aggressively.”
“That she made the NTSC team is a pure indication that she can play on that level,” he said. “That comes with aggression, which has improved tremendously.”
Last summer, Fitzsimmons made the NTSC team for 13-year-olds and was invited to the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. USA Water Polo coaches picked middle schoolers for a weeklong camp.
“That was a bunch of fun,” Fitzsimmons said. “I really loved that camp. I actually saw some of those players at NTSCs and ODP the previous year. I got to meet a bunch of new coaches that I saw later on so that was cool.”
Making the U.S. team this year started with a camp in Atlanta.
“You make the zone team first, then that zone team goes to a tournament with the other zones and they select players from that group to make NTSC,” Fitzsimmons said.
Forty players were selected for NTSCs, held in California, and that was narrowed to 13 each on two teams to go to Barcelona.
“I was kind of nervous, but I was just confident in what I could do,” Fitzsimmons said. “I wasn’t worrying about how good other players were, just what I could do. That helped me a bit.
“It was hard. It was really hard and I was really tired, but if you keep the right mindset, you normally can push through it.”
Fitzsimmons had an early flight back to Georgia so she found out right away that she made the team. She’ll head to Connecticut for two days of training before flying to Spain on Aug. 3.
“There are going to be sessions and when we don’t have double sessions, we’ll be sight-seeing,” she said.
It’s her first time traveling out of the country — and means missing the first week of high school. But she’ll catch up quickly.
“I’m just beaming with pride,” Stentiford said. “It’s an amazing accomplishment for her.
“From the start, she’s just been one of those players that you just knew, if she wanted to, could do great things.”