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December 16, 2011

Back together again

By: Marc Mullen

Swimming the backstroke is a tradition in the Higgins family, and siblings Collin, Caroline and Charlie are enjoying that and each other at Virginia Tech

Sally Higgins thought she was done. Her youngest son, Collin, had just graduated from Charlotte Latin High School, and she was getting ready to embark on the next chapter of her life.

She had already seen her oldest son, Charlie, and her only daughter, Caroline, take the same path Collin was about to take. After 23 years, Sally figured she was about to get some “me time.”

“My mom was kind of excited when all three of us were gone because she finally had some time to relax,” Caroline said. “She knew she was going to miss us, but she was just so ready to settle down and just do her own schedule and not have to worry about us. And then Charlie comes home with this dog.”

Charlie is the oldest son of John and Sally Higgins and is a senior on the Virginia Tech men’s swimming team. A year ago, his sister, who swims for the women’s team, joined him in Blacksburg. Collin completed the circle with his decision to attend Tech and swim for the men’s team, too, beginning this past fall.

So Sally, after many years of hectic schedules – taking Charlie, and later Collin, to basketball and baseball practices, Caroline to ballet lessons, Collin to karate practice, and of course, all of them to swimming practice since they were each 5 years old – was ready for some peace and quiet.

Then, Charlie brings home Lyla. And no, Caroline was not a resentful sister speaking about her older brother’s newest girlfriend. She was honestly referring to a canine.

“We’ve always wanted one, and I saw one – these puppies were going to have to be put down – and I just brought one home,” Charlie said. “My parents weren’t too happy, but my brother and sister were ecstatic. We’ve wanted a dog ever since we were little and knew what they were.

“She’s a medium-size dog, a hound-Australian shepherd mix. She’s about 40 pounds now, and she is almost fully grown.”

“I was actually shocked that they [their parents] let him keep it because I thought they were just going to say no,” Caroline said. “My mom is still kind of iffy about it, though, because it’s just so much work, taking care of it. It’s like taking care of a baby.

“It definitely ties her down, but I think she’s kind of grateful for it because she does get a little lonely without us three. Lyla definitely keeps her busy, which is a good thing, but my mom says that she is still kind of upset at Charlie and that she might not get over that for a while.”

The three Higgins siblings, who hail from Weddington, N.C, all departed for Blacksburg, sans Lyla, this fall and are back together for the first time since 2008, which is really important to each of them.

Conversations with each individually reveal how they are a close-knit family and really do enjoy each other’s company. Because of practices, they see each other almost every day, and they do meet outside of the sport’s requirements, recently getting together to celebrate both Charlie’s (Nov. 8) and Caroline’s (Nov. 5) birthdays.

They each even admit there hasn’t been a time they can remember when they’ve fought in the several months that they’ve all been at Tech. And they definitely look out for and help each other out when needed.

“It’s just really good having Charlie and Caroline here because if I’m in study hall and I didn’t get a chance to get dinner, and I really need food, they will most likely come and help me,” Collin said. “It’s really good to have someone here like that to look after you. So it’s kind of like a transition in a way, going from my parents to my siblings.”

And their parents couldn’t be more thrilled about the situation.

“They are definitely happy that we are all now here,” Charlie said. “Just being able to come to one meet and be able to watch all three of us at the same time, I know they enjoy that. And it’s really nice for them because we only live about two and a half hours from Tech, so I don’t think they’ve ever missed a home meet, or an in-conference meet at that.”

Again, it isn’t a coincidence that all three ended up swimming for the H2OKIES when you consider their similarities.

First, take their names.

“Yeah, I’ve asked my parents, ‘Why are we all C names?,’ and all my mom has ever said is ‘We just liked C names.’ That is pretty funny, though,” Collin said. “I had a friend at the Georgia Tech meet, and he said, ‘I see ‘C. Higgins’ up on the board, and I wasn’t sure which one it was.’ So it’s pretty funny, but all we’ve ever gotten is that they just like C names.”

Then, examine their history in the sport, which was almost recited word for word by each in separate interviews.

“Yeah, we all started in summer league when we were 5, and one by one, we went on to year-round programs when we were 7,” Charlie said.

“But then when you hit 13 or 14, training gets harder. You’re there longer. It’s more of a commitment, and that’s when you have to decide do I want to stay with it or do I want to end it,” Caroline said. “Practices are a lot longer – 30 minutes to an hour longer – and you have more practices during the week. So I really couldn’t juggle that with other things, so I was forced to make a decision, and I stuck with swimming.”

Next, think about their specialty.

“Even at summer league, backstroke would definitely be my best event. It just came the easiest to me,” Caroline said. “I think it’s funny how all three of us are backstrokers.”

“I don’t know. All three of us have always just been dominant in the backstroke over our other strokes,” Collin said.

Also, credit their parents’ upbringing.

“My parents obviously treat us all equally,” Collin said. “I would always think that I was not the favorite because Charlie would always get the cell phone first or the car first. He was older, and I just didn’t think I understood at the time, but my parents treated us all equally.”

Lastly, is their personality. Okay, maybe this is where things differ a little, but it can be expected.

“I’m not the crazy one. I just like to sit at home when I’m not swimming, and my brother’s the same way,” Charlie said. “So if we’re not swimming, we’re probably just at home.”

“Charlie and Collin are both like that. They are pretty independent and just like relaxing,” Caroline said. “I’m more the social one. I’m more outgoing. I just love going out with my friends, hanging out with them. They just like to play their guitars and play their video games.”

However, the decision that Charlie made when he committed to Tech is ultimately what factored into his younger sister and brother coming to Blacksburg as well.

“If he hadn’t gone here, I might have never looked here, so he did have a part in making me look at the school,” Caroline said.

“It was very difficult for me because a lot of the coaches knew me through Charlie because they recruited him,” Collin said. “Having another Higgins say no to them wasn’t too easy for me to do, but I just thought that I wanted to be closer to home.”

Charlie has excelled during his time with the Hokies, having recorded a pair of NCAA Championship qualifications in the 100 and 200 backstroke in his freshman and sophomore seasons. He has also etched his name in the record books, posting the fastest times in school history in each event – 46.52 seconds in the 100 and 1:43.72 in the 200 – and he was named the team’s rookie of the year in 2009.

“During my freshman year, I dropped three seconds in my 100 back and about three in my 200 back, and that was something I really wasn’t expecting,” Charlie said. “I hadn’t swam anything out of the ordinary like that during the season and going to ACC and making NCAAs was a pretty big shock.”

It was also a bit of a shock because of what happened to Charlie earlier during his freshman season.

“Over the training trip over Christmas, I found out that I had mono, so I was out of the water for two whole weeks and missed one of the most important parts of our training,” he said. “So I went into ACCs just thinking, ‘Well, I might as well give it a shot.’ I really wasn’t expecting a lot, with being sick, and to end up doing that, I can’t really even explain it.”

For his final season at Tech, Charlie has a couple goals. One is just like every other swimmer in the nation – making it to the NCAAs. Many, though, probably don’t have the second one on their list.

“You know, I don’t want him [Collin] beating me, but I do want him to succeed and do well,” Charlie said. “I do want him to do better than me by the time he’s done, but for now, I’d like to stay ahead of him.”

And Collin’s response?

“Definitely, by my senior year, I’m hoping to take his records away. I mean, you’d still see ‘C. Higgins’ up there, but it will be my name and not his,” Collin said. “Charlie really broke out his freshman year and made it to NCAAs, which is really hard, really difficult. There were only, like, 24 kids that made that event. I have no doubt in my mind that he’ll make it again this year, and hopefully I can try and be there with him. It’s going to be difficult, but I’m going to reach for it.”

There’s the obvious ribbing of each other when it comes to siblings. For example, when asked about his younger brother, Charlie mentioned to ask him about his Justin Bieber hairstyle.

“Yeah, I had really long hair … and I actually call it ‘The Collin’ because I’m older than he [Bieber] is,” Collin said. “But yeah, I did, and now it’s gone.”

Neither male could come up with anything about their sister other than complimenting her on her commitment to education.

“My sister is real smart, a lot smarter than I am,” Charlie said. Collin adds, “She really doesn’t have any embarrassing moments. She is just the smart one of the three of us.”

Caroline gets a little jab in with her response. “I would say that I definitely care the most,” she said. “I’m not sure I am the smartest one, though.”

The only thing she could come up with for her older brother was an incident that occurred at his first summer league meet. It resembled a scary experience, to say the least.

“He was up on the blocks, and they used an air horn to signal the start,” she said. “When the air horn went off to signal them to dive into the water, he just freaked out. He was crying. He was really upset, and he just stepped down from the blocks. It just freaked him out.

“Which is funny because look at him now. It doesn’t bother him anymore. I just remember he was like ‘I don’t want to do this,’ but now he’s breaking records. He’s doing amazing. I just think it’s funny how he was so afraid, and now he’s just great.”

With his athletics and academic year coming to a close, Charlie’s future is uncertain. That brings us back to Lyla. The main reason she lives in Weddington and not Blacksburg is because his parents want Charlie to focus on school and swimming.

Post graduation is an unknown for the eldest, but a possible choice of coaching could be on the horizon.

He definitely has his own experiences – “I have been a head coach of a summer league program for two years now, and I’ve enjoyed coaching, so maybe that will take me somewhere” – to lean upon. But he also has some intangibles that maybe he doesn’t even realize, as he has mentored his siblings along the way.

“Yeah, I was definitely homesick, so I did lean on him when times got tough and swimming got really hard,” Caroline said. “He was always very supportive of me. He’d pull me aside at practice sometimes and just give me a pump-up talk and tell me ‘You can do this.’ And at meets, he would do the same thing.”

“I definitely tried to lean them toward Tech, especially Collin,” Charlie said. “I wanted him to come here because I knew that if he went somewhere else in our conference, that would hurt us. So I am really glad he came here.”