Rebekah Hamilton is just back from Ireland, full of lessons learned – for instance, even as a passenger, it’s terrifying riding on the left side of the road – and enriched by new friends made. She brought back a lifetime of memories, a kitten-soft Dublin sweatshirt and three swimming medals.
Representing the Huntsville Swim Association in an international meet, the 15-year-old is the latest star to emerge to carry on the city’s rich swimming history.
She participated in the Irish Open as part of the National Club Swimming Association team, the second Huntsville swimmer to qualify for that team in four years. (Zach Harting, now swimming for the University of Louisville, where he was named honorable mention All-America, made the team in 2015.)
Hamilton won two individual third-place medals (1500-meter freestyle and 800-meter freestyle) and another third-place medal as part of the 800-meter relay team.
It makes me think about my future and how other people from Huntsville have done what I want to do.”
“My favorite part was being able to meet elite swimmers from across the nation and then the international swimmers,” she says. The “ready room,” where swimmers await their turn to compete, was almost a social setting.
“The Irish people would ask me about America and what swimming is like here and I got to ask them questions,” she says. “They would ask what kind of food I would eat, different stuff like that. It didn’t necessarily have anything to do with swimming. More about culture.”
Hamilton, who won two events to help lead her Westminster Christian Academy team to the state championship last December, has a sense of Huntsville swimming history. She’s fully aware that the city has produced two Olympians, John Piersma (1996 in Atlanta) and Margaret Hoelzer (2004 in Athens and a three-time medalist in 2008 in Beijing).
“It’s very cool and also it makes me think about my future and how other people from Huntsville have done what I want to do,” Hamilton says. “Which is hopefully to go to the Olympics someday.”
Calling her the “quintessential hard worker,” Huntsville Swim Association coach Matt Webber says, “It’s a long way to get to the level that two kids from this town got to. But she has the work ethic to go along with talent.”
Universal praise for Aquatics Center
When competitors learn that Rebekah Hamilton is from Huntsville, there has been a universal reaction.
“’Oh, you have such a nice pool there,’” she says. “It’s cool to me that people from other parts of the U.S. know about Huntsville and know about our pool.”
The Huntsville Aquatics Center opened last July to great reviews, from spectators and competitors alike. It will host national-level events as well as provide practice and competition space for local swimmers.
As Chris O’Neil, the Facilities Construction Project Manager for the City of Huntsville, says, “We had the opportunity to do something right, and we did.”
(Put O’Neil up there in Huntsville swim history, too. He was a four-year All-America at Texas A&M and won a gold medal in the inaugural Goodwill Games in Moscow.)
“The new pool is very bright, the colors are all bright,” Hamilton says. “It might sound strange, but it feels very happy with all the light. It just looks very big and very welcoming.”
A couple of slow starts
One of the two pools used for competition and training is called the Legacy Pool. It pays tribute to great swimmers of the past, and perhaps serve as inspiration to current swimmers.
Those separate generations may have more close ties than they think.
Margaret Hoelzer and her family laughingly recall her first-ever race, how her mother Elizabeth had to nudge her off the starting block after the whistle sounded to start the race.
For Rebekah Hamilton, it was just the opposite as she debuted in a 25-meter backstroke event as a six-year-old in Virginia.
“I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I jumped in the water and they blew the whistle. I thought that was the whistle to go, and I went too early,” she said. “Because I went, a bunch of other kids went, too. It was a big mess.”
Rocky starts for them both. But it’s how you finish, not how you start.