When Alex Sumner set upon her summer of vetting colleges, she had a few qualifying criteria.
Exemplary academics were a must. A chance to compete for league — and maybe NCAA — titles was a plus. Warm weather would be a nice touch.
But when it came to breaking ties, the Episcopal Academy senior reverted to her bread-and-butter: What program would be best for her … as a backstroker?
The answer, Sumner decided this week, is the University of California at Berkeley.
“Cal is known for having really great backstrokers,” the reigning Daily Times Girls Swimmer of the Year said. “… There will be competition on the team and there’s always going to be people to race. (Head coach) Teri (McKeever) knows how to train all strokes, but backstroke is something special Cal has been able to develop.”
The list of star Cal backstrokers is long and distinguished: Missy Franklin, Natalie Coughlin, Elizabeth Pelton, Rachel Bootsma and 2016 Olympic silver medalist Kathleen Baker in the 100-meter back. Baker, who will be a senior in 2018-19 when Sumner is a freshman, won the 100- and 200-yard back at NCAAs last year and accomplished the 100/200 double at Nationals in late June to qualify for this week’s World Championships in Budapest, Hungary.
Sumner finished 48th in that race in Indianapolis and 47th in the 200 individual medley, but she turned heads by placing fifth in the 200 back. Her time of 2 minutes, 10.36 seconds from prelims is the 10th-fastest all-time (long-course meters) for the 15-16 age group, just .13 seconds behind Baker’s quickest time from four years earlier. She finished fifth at nationals, earning a spot in the U.S. delegation for the World Junior Championships in Indy in late August.
Sumner’s best LCM time of 1:01.61 in the 100 back, set in late May in Vancouver, is the 25th fastest 15-16 time ever, just .06 behind another 2016 Olympian, Olivia Smoliga.
Nationals in Indianapolis provided Sumner with another push toward Cal: Witnessing the team dynamics up close. Sumner visited the campus in April and knew of the area (her mother, Robin, attended law school at Berkeley), but watching the tight-knit Bears in action reinforced her instincts.
“That helped me decide on Cal because that was the first time I got to see the team and talk to the girls,” Sumner said. “I think just seeing the way the team works together, even though their whole team wasn’t there, but seeing the team atmosphere at a big meet was the final piece, and it made it a team I want to be a part of.”
A big part of that dynamic is McKeever, one of the most respected coaches in the country. She’s one of the alarmingly few female coaches to helm elite programs, and she’s produced a remarkable track record in 24 years in charge, including four NCAA championships since 2009. At the 2012 Olympics in London, she became the first woman to serve as head coach of the U.S. women’s team.
McKeever is also renowned for her new-age, personalized approach, nurturing athletes as more than just cogs in a lineup focused on the cold calculus of results. Sumner sees parallels between McKeever’s style and that of coach Charlie Kennedy at Suburban Swim Club, who melds concern for the individual with an insistence on self-reliance.
“I think immediately when I met Teri, I thought she was the type of person who I want to coach me,” Sumner said. “Part of the college process is that you want coaches that are as interested in you as you are in them, and I could tell she wanted me to be part of the team and that’s important. I wanted to be part of a team where everyone works hard and everyone is appreciated, and we work hard to win meets and win at conference meets and win NCAAs.”
Sumner, who lives in Swarthmore, attended but didn’t swim at Strath Haven as a freshman. At Episcopal, she’s drawn to the team dynamic that fuels their dual-meet success, leading to consecutive Inter-Ac titles and last year’s first Eastern Interscholastic Championships crown, in which Sumner was named Most Outstanding Swimmer for the second consecutive year.
Sumner holds Delco records in the 200 IM and 100 back as well as a leg on the 400 freestyle relay.
At Cal, she’ll get a chance to compete in some of the biggest meets college has to offer, which is just what she’s looking for.
“I wanted to be really competitive with other teams,” she said. “I think part of why high school swimming is really fun for me at EA is because our team is really strong, and it’s fun racing teams like GA and Penn Charter. I wanted to be on a team that has that competition and can be one of the top schools at NCAAs.”
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