Thursday, November 23, 2017
Prep Swimming

Plant swimmer Morgan Tankersley’s extraordinary success doesn’t water down her drive

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TAMPA

She steps behind the starting blocks and swirls her arms like windmills. Teammates cheer her name — "Mor-gan Tankers-ley! Mor-gan Tankers-ley!" — from around the pool. She smiles and waves and gives a high-five to a teammate. She is the same as always, no matter how small or huge the meet. She is perfectly calm and supremely content.

She is happy.

She pulls goggles over her eyes and the world goes away. She steps on the blocks, leans over. A horn sounds and she dives in. Her stroke is strong and smooth, and she surges ahead — far, far ahead — of everyone.

She is extraordinary.

On Nov. 6, 2016, at the Class 4A state swim meet, she did this three times at distances of 100, 200 and 500 yards. Each time she touched the wall and popped up her head to see the giant scoreboard displaying the times, bringing gasps from the crowd.

By the time that night ended, Plant High junior Morgan Tankersley had done something no one is believed to have done before: set three state records on the same day.

She finished the 200 freestyle in 1 minute, 44.31 seconds, breaking the 6-year-old state record by 1.06 seconds. She finished the 500 free in 4:37.60, 0.31 seconds ahead of the record set in 1999.

During preliminaries, she pulled off the 100 freestyle record by swimming the lead leg of Plant’s 400 free relay, which under state rules qualifies for a record at the 100-yard distance. Her time of 48.73 seconds broke the 14-year-old mark by 0.04 seconds.

In the wake of the mind-boggling performance, interviews and accolades followed, including being named the 2017 national female high school swimmer of the year by Swimming World, an honor previously earned by the likes of Olympic greats Missy Franklin, Natalie Coughlin and Katie Ledecky, the latter of whom Tankersley will join next year at Stanford.

Tankersley, meantime, remained Tankersley. She enjoyed the moment and was concerned about helping those around her — all reasons she recently was selected Plant’s homecoming queen.

"No matter what she has accomplished, she has never seemed like she is above us," said teammate Sidney Whitfield, one of Tankersley’s best friends since they were 9. "She has never seemed out of reach as a friend. She is one of us, and I know she always will be, no matter what she accomplishes."

Ryan Gober, her club coach, said the key to Tankersley’s success is far more about her attitude than her physical gifts, which are tremendous but not off the charts.

"There are swimmers out there with more athletic ability than Morgan, but I have never found one who is more positive and has more desire and more ‘want’ than Morgan," said Gober, who has coached Tankersley for 10 years. "She lives every moment of her life like it is the most important, and that is what makes her awesome.

"As for me, I am a far better coach because of her, and I will forever be in debt to her because of what I have learned from her. You can’t say that about many teenagers, but Morgan is different. She is one in a million."

Tankersley says at the base of it, it’s simple: be positive and work hard — always.

It’s a philosophy that has a lot to do with the encouraging but not overbearing attitude of her family, including her parents, Merrie and Vance (who met while swimming at Florida State University), and grandfather Ed Brennan, who has coached the University of Tampa swim team for more than 30 years.

"My parents always said swimming is something you must want to do," said Tankersley, who has shattered all of her mother’s records at Plant. "No one can make you want it."

At the moment, Tankersley would like to win a couple of more individual state titles (which would bring her total to five), and, more than anything, help the Panthers become the first girls swim team from Hillsborough County to win a state team title — a string that stretches to 1920.

It’s all within the realm of possibility.

Gainesville Buchholz, which won the Class 4A team title last year with 276 points (72 ahead of runnerup Plant), is still considered the favorite, though by the slimmest of margins.

"It’s so exciting for everybody because we’ve seen all of it come together over the years," Tankersley said. "That’s why all of us have worked so hard."

But win or lose, break records or not, Tankersley said the ultimate goal is the same for her, which means when she steps on the blocks and pulls down the goggles to begin a race, she is calm and content before the horn sounds, the world falls away and she dives into the water.

"That is a great feeling," Tankersley said. "But it is a feeling you get only if you know that you have worked as hard as you possibly could every second of every day."

After a race, she says she remembers nothing. No strokes. No turns.

Nothing.

"That’s when I know I’ve done everything right," Tankersley said. "Because from all that hard work, everything at that moment is second nature. You don’t have to think."

And she says this, of course, with a big grin, in the best way possible — sincerely, happily.

   
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