User ID: Password:

December 11, 2012

Roundabout Path to Gold

By: Marc Mullen

Tech swimmer Heather Savage grew up in New York, went to Clemson and nearly transferred to
Maryland before coming to Blacksburg and winning a gold medal as a Hokie

It was a remarkable year for Heather Savage. Her junior season came to an emotional peak at the 2012 ACC Swimming and Diving Championships, and then she solidified her swimming status with her results at the NCAA Championships. To cap things off, she received an unexpected honor just before the summer break.

All that is missing from her resumé was a national title, and thanks to a decision she made, not as a high school student, but after her freshman season at Clemson, Savage has a chance to race for that title as a senior in Blacksburg.

That’s correct. After completing her high school career in Canandaigua, N.Y. – a town halfway between Buffalo and Syracuse off of Interstate 90 and home to the fourth largest of the 11 Finger Lakes – Savage took her talents to South Carolina to swim for Clemson University.

It wasn’t until she got a dreadful call just after the 2010 spring semester, and after talking it over with one of her coaches, that Savage even considered visiting Virginia Tech.

“I was home, and I had gone to visit my best friend, who goes to school in Buffalo, so I went to see her for the weekend,” Savage said, referring to where she was when she received the call. “I knew that there was a team meeting that I was missing on Friday because I had gotten the text that read something like, ‘If you guys are going to be in town, we are having a team meeting. Please come to this’ or something like that.

“We thought that our coach was actually going to leave and go someplace else. That was kind of what our initial thought was. And so one of my teammates calls me and is just bawling. I said ‘Maddie (Tarantolo), what happened?’ She said, ‘They’re getting rid of the team!’ And I was like ‘What?!’ I was honestly in shock. I had no idea that it was coming.”

Clemson decided to discontinue both the men’s and women’s swimming programs and the men’s diving team over a period of two years. The women’s diving team would be the only one of the school’s swimming and diving quartet to survive. The school gave any student-athlete a blanket release, if he or she wanted it.

For Savage, the decision was devastating. She was home, far from her teammates – friends whom she just made and is still close with to this day – and she had left many of her belongings in storage at Clemson. Her freshman year for the Tigers saw her compete in six events at the ACC Championships and set the school record in the 100-yard butterfly. So she expected a bright future at Clemson. Instead, she found herself in limbo, not knowing what to do.

“I decided I needed to go back. I just needed to physically be there to figure out what was going on,” Savage said. “After talking it through with my coaches down there, I thought ‘I love it here. I don’t want to leave.’

“But I also didn’t want to swim the next two years and not get a senior year. I wasn’t ready to be done. I love the sport, and I just didn’t want to get cheated out on my last year. At the time, I knew I wanted to go to Maryland. I left Clemson after talking with my coaches and set in my mind that I was going to Maryland.”

Mothers and fathers owe a lot to coaches at any age. They are the people who prepare and run practices, set forth the game plans for competitions, and at most times, receive the glory or blame depending on those outcomes.

However, coaches, mainly at the college level, are also the people whom mothers and fathers entrust to aid in their child’s growth through the end of adolescence into young adulthood. That’s why a “family atmosphere” is often attributed to why a student-athlete selects a school.

Former Clemson assistant coach Derek Perkins, who is now at Kentucky, had no foretelling of the future. He just wanted the best for one of his student-athletes and knew the Tech atmosphere was more like that of Clemson’s.

“My coach sat across from me and said, ‘I want you to take a look at Virginia Tech,’ and I really didn’t want to look there,” she said. “There were reasons why I didn’t look there the first time, and that’s just not where I wanted to go. He said, ‘Do me a favor. Look at Tech. I think you’ll love it. If you do anything for me, do this for me.’

“He and I had a great relationship, so I was like ‘All right, fine. I’ll look at Tech.’”

So Savage, who thought she was done with the whole recruiting process, first went to visit College Park before her visit to Blacksburg. Regardless of her next school, she was determined to continue competing in the ACC.

“It was a great time at Maryland, but when I left I was like, ‘Eh, I’m not sure if I can go there,’” she said. “It is really close to D.C., and kind of a big city. I’m kind of okay with that, but that’s not necessarily what I want for my college experience.

“Then, when I was flying in here, honestly, the scenery reminded me a lot of home. So I met the kids who were here in the summer. I met the coaches. I fell in love with the campus. It was beautiful.

“Honestly, when I left, I kept the coaches sweating a little bit, but I knew this is where I was going to come. I was still shaky, though, because I hadn’t told the girls at Clemson that I was leaving yet, so I was shaky on how they were going to take it. But it was about a week later that I made the decision.”

Ironically, Perkins’ candid talk with Savage in 2010 may have prevented her from facing the same fate at the end of the 2012 season. As many now know because of the Big Ten realignment, Maryland announced back in July that it was cutting seven sports, including women’s swimming, which would have resulted in a lost senior season for Savage had she chose the Terrapins.

Fast forward to the evening session on the third day of the 2012 ACC Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships being held at the home pool of the H2Okies, the Christiansburg Aquatic Center.

Savage entered the finals of the 100 butterfly seeded fourth after finishing the previous heat in 53.67 seconds, a shade slower than her previous best. But her time was a full second behind the top seed, Maryland’s Megan Lafferty (52.65), who held the ACC meet (52.39) and conference record (52.28) in the event.

Savage would swim that portion of the team’s 400 medley relay in the night’s first event before concentrating on the individual race.

“I came off the morning swim, and I wasn’t necessarily happy with how my morning swim went,” she said. “I came back refocused. The 400 medley relay was the first event that night, and after I got out (of the pool), our coaches said to me, ‘You just swam so fast. You had the fastest split among butterflyers across the board.’

“And I was like, ‘Well, why not just go win the thing?’ I know that sounds bad, but in my mind, that’s what was going through my head.”

And she did in a bit of an upset, becoming the school’s first female to win gold in a butterfly event at the ACC meet and setting an ACC meet, conference, school and pool record in the process. She stopped the clock in 52.14, more than a half second faster than Lafferty.

“The atmosphere in the pool that night was absolutely electric,” Savage said. “Stepping up on the blocks for my race, it was crazy. I was feeling good about it. I was relaxed.

“ACCs was really special for me last year, too, because it was the Clemson girls last meet. So they were all there. I remember hitting my last turn and where they [her former Clemson teammates] were sitting was actually right at the end of my lane. I remember seeing them on my last turn. I was just a train wreck after it. It was an absolutely electric.”

A month later, Savage solidified her place, not only among the ACC butterflyers, but also the nation’s. She earned Tech’s 10th All-America honor on the women’s side, just the fourth female swimmer, with her seventh-place showing at the NCAA Championships in Auburn, Ala. But that wasn’t without a bit of confusion between Savage and her coach, Ned Skinner.

“The thing that I loved about NCAAs was you have to get up and you have to race,” she said. “You have to go fast in the morning, and if you go fast in the morning, you’ve got that opportunity to come back at night.

“I was actually watching the times as they were coming up, and I remember standing there and thinking, ‘Shoot, I think I’m ninth.’ I literally thought I was ninth, and Ned said, ‘No, you’re eighth.’ And I’m like, ‘No, I’m ninth.’ And he’s like, ‘No, you’re not!’ And it was just mass confusion until we figured it out and finally it scrolled up that I was eighth, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m eighth.’

“And then I thought to myself, ‘All I have to do tonight is finish the race legally, and I’m an All-American. That’s so cool!’ Obviously, I was going to go out there and race, but the pressure was immediately taken off after that morning session. All I had to do is not false start, and we’re good.”

There was no false starting, and she finished the race in 52.16 seconds, a bit slower than her school record, but still good enough for 12 team points for the H2Okies, who finished a program-best 18th with their 52 points.

Topping off the year, Savage was selected as the ACC Women’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year, a truly humbling and unexpected honor for the human nutrition and exercise major.

“I was actually sitting in our academic advisor’s office over in Lane [Stadium] when he got the email,” she said. “And he said to me, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’ve been named the ACC Scholar-Athlete of the Year.’

“I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He had just gotten the email and showed me. We’re in a conference with Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia Tech … there is no way. I couldn’t believe it. That was a huge honor, and that was something that I wasn’t expecting at all.

“That’s one of those things … I guess I have control over my grades, but you have no control over who picks that. Swimming I love because it’s in my control – what I do in the pool is what I do. No one else is responsible for what I do in the pool. But it was just a huge and incredible honor, shocking, so it was very cool.”

In the history of Tech swimming, only one woman has ever earned multiple All-America honors – Jessica Botzum (2005-08), who garnered five, including the highest ever finish at the national meet (fourth in the 200 breast stroke). A pair of current Tech divers, senior Logan Kline and sophomore Kaylea Arnett, who were also All-Americans last year, will look to join the elite club.

And, of course, so, too, will Savage. Thanks to the advice of a former coach, Savage, who almost missed out twice on a senior year, has that chance as well.