On Sarah-Grace Thompson’s first day of weight training this summer, her coach, Thomas Nguyen, asked her to pick the 45-pound bar off the ground.
“I said, ‘I don’t think I can lift it,’” Thompson said frankly. “I tried. I really couldn’t pick it up to put it on the rack.
“I definitely started from nothing. It was a long process.”
Thompson, a senior at Mountain View, was already one of the top sprint swimmers in Gwinnett. She’s the three-time defending county champ in the 100 backstroke. She won the 100 freestyle as a sophomore and was second as a freshman and junior.
At state, Thompson has been second in the 100 free the last two years and was third in the 100 back last season.
But it’s been arduous scrounging for fractions of seconds after a breakout 14-year-old season.
“I didn’t really swim great at the beginning of the (club) season, but at the end, I dropped time in everything I swam at age group state,” Thompson said. “That was the peak time. But I was 14 and you’re always fast when you’re 14.
“When I got into (SwimAtlanta) Select freshman year, it was an especially hard transition because I was the youngest one. I was starting high school and I was starting a new group. It was a lot to adjust to. I did have a pretty good end of season 100 freestyle and some of my sprint events, but it’s been a long, windy road since then.”
Thompson transitioned from distance events and focused on the sprints after her freshman year. They fiddled with her backstroke as a sophomore and then tweaked her freestyle mechanics last year.
“When I changed my backstroke, for probably about a year and a half, I didn’t drop any time,” Thompson said. “I was kind of all over the place. Then at the end of the season, I actually made my junior national cut and had a great meet.
“Since then, it’s been more waiting. Last summer was especially up and down. It was kind of crazy. We couldn’t really figure out what was wrong. I was getting really burned out and every time I got in the pool it was something totally different going on, so it was tough to pinpoint how to approach that.”
Her coaches at SwimAtlanta, Chris Davis Sr. and Chris Davis Jr., worked to keep natural frustrations at bay.
“The resistance to speed is cubed,” Davis Sr. said. “The faster you go, the more friction you create, the harder it is to go fast.
“There’s a point and time for every athlete where you get to that level. The faster you go, the harder it is to go fast.”
Working with Nguyen, who had been one of her age group coaches at SwimAtlanta, was a revelation. Thompson backed off slightly in the pool and started lifting for the first time in her life.
“We started with 10 pounds on each side (for a squat),” Nguyen said. “She came back and was like ‘Thomas, I cannot feel my legs.’ I was like, ‘Sarah-Grace, that was nothing. That was the intro to lifting weights.’
“She progressed very, very quickly.”
They focused on movements that would benefit her in the pool, using body weight and plyometrics to build her strength without adding bulk.
“Swimming is super explosive and if you can get out ahead in the beginning, you’re going to be in good shape,” said Nguyen, a Brookwood grad who swam sprint backstroke in college and internationally. “We started the summer with her only being able to do two pull-ups by herself. She finished being able to do seven. So in three months, she was able to control her body weight a lot better. We started with 65 pounds on squats and got up to 155 — and good range of motion, too.
“She would go into practice and feel the parts that were sore while she was swimming. It shows that what you’re doing was what you’re using swimming. You’re strengthening those muscles. She was able to be more explosive. It’s just when you lift like that, and you’re not used to it, it takes a while to get rested.”
Her times this summer reflected that expenditure, though Nguyen and the Davis’ worked in conjunction to mitigate exhaustion.
“If they went 8,000 meters in a day (in the pool), I wouldn’t smash her in the weight room,” Nguyen said. “Chris has been my coach for 15 years. I’ve known the Davis’ forever. We were very open in communicating with what we did for her.
“I think it worked out really well. I loved working with Sarah-Grace. She’s awesome. She’s such a well-rounded person.”
They call her El Presidente at SwimAtlanta.
“Because every single kid here would vote for her for president,” Davis Sr. said. “She’s super. Just completely respected by every kid on the team.”
Thompson is a 4.0 student with an interest in studying biogenetics. She’s still deciding where she wants to do that, and swim, but has made visits to a number of schools, including Princeton, Hawaii, Vanderbilt, LSU and North Carolina.
Thompson also is heavily involved in Swim Across America. Her SwimAtlanta team has raised more than $180,000 for the foundation over the last two years.
“That has been a great opportunity because of the work they do and how tangible it is,” Thompson said. “I’ve never been part of an organization where we raised money and then we get to meet the doctors and see the labs where they’re actually using the money.”
She’s the senior representative on the Georgia Swimming Board and was selected to attend the national leadership summit for USA Swimming last year.
“When she did get into high school, she took on a lot more,” Davis Jr. said of her times in the pool. “She’s a perfectionist in everything she does. There’s only so much Sarah-Grace to go around.”
Even as they made changes to her stroke, with longterm benefits in mind, Thompson has been a terrific relay swimmer for the club.
“It doesn’t matter how she’s feeling, you throw her in a relay, you’re going to get a good swim,” Davis Sr. said. “Not everyone is a great relay swimmer — and she is. She’s got three other people depending on her. She’s that kind of person.”
Thompson, who as a kindergartner cried when her first Gwinnett County Swim League summer season was over, was put on the 800 free relay in her first junior national meet. She was a freshman swimming with three older girls.
“I was like, I cannot mess this up,” Thompson said with a laugh. “I’m new to the group and it was kind of a place to prove myself. I definitely did not want to be the slowest one on that relay. We ended up winning a medal, which was an incredible experience.
“I never want to let any of my teammates down, especially because I know they’ve worked as hard as I have. I don’t want to be in the way of that opportunity for them so I’m going to swim as fast as I possibly can.”
That camaraderie is part of what is so appealing about the high school season. Thompson wants to help Mountain View, one of the newest Class AAAAAAA schools in Gwinnett, make a name for itself in an uber-competitive county.
“It’s been a really cool experience to win an event at county and know that Mountain View had (its name up there),” Thompson said. “Getting to be one of the people to do that has been really cool. I know I’ll get to leave that behind.”
Her sister, Charlotte, is a freshman on the team this season.
“So getting to swim with her this year on all the relays has been a lot of fun,” Thompson said. “Hopefully we can set some records together.
“Every year, we’ve gotten better. It’s been cool to watch everyone improve — and prove ourselves.”
At a tri-meet before the holiday week, Sarah-Grace won the 200 free and the 500 free, while Charlotte won the 200 individual medley.
“The past few meets have been very promising,” she said.
Thompson won the 100 free at SwimAtlanta’s home meet last month and her training is focused on junior nationals in Atlanta next week.
“Any time we’ve made adjustments, it takes a while to pay off,” Davis Jr. said. “This summer she had a huge drop in her 100 freestyle.
“If you look at her when she was a freshman to now, she’s probably 10 or 15 pounds of more muscle. That has been an adjustment for everybody, to have her get that much stronger, then also perform in the pool.”