SARASOTA — Thirteen-year-old Jillian Santiago cuts through the water with blade-like precision.
Each stroke is deeper and more powerful than the last.
With her back gliding across the water and her legs kicking, sending tiny bursts of water into the air, the Lakewood Ranch resident and St. Martha Catholic School seventh-grader begins her final push toward the wall.
In an instant, Jillian stretches deep into the wall, out-touching her opponent by a mere one-hundredth of a second to win the 100-yard backstroke at the Florida Swimming Spring Age Group Championships this spring.
After the race was over, Jillian, who swims for the Sarasota Tsunami, learned she had won what would be her fourth individual first-place victory.
“It’s something I’ll hold on to forever,” Jillian says. “That moment when you hear everyone cheering for you — it’s an amazing feeling.
“I like the pressure,” she says. “It kind of helps me get over the fear of things. I just always tell myself, ‘You can go faster. This is your race. You know how you’re supposed to race.’”
With the win, Jillian won the high-point award for the 11- and 12-year-old age group — her fifth-consecutive meet earning the distinction. Following her performance, Jillian competed in the Florida Swimming versus Florida Gold Coast All-Stars Meet, at which she posted victories in both individual and relay events.
Jillian posted the fastest times by a 12 year old in the 100 and 200 freestyle in the area and is ranked No. 1 in four events. She also is ranked in the top 10 in the nation.
“When she races, she doesn’t just want to win, but she hates to lose,” Tsunami coach Ira Klein says. “She’s got a great attitude, and she’s always up and willing to work hard.
“She’s very mature,” Klein says. “It’s rare to find athletes who have achieved what she’s achieved at such a young age. Mentally, she understands the things that need to be done.”
Now Jillian, who turned 13 years old in April, is busy preparing for the Florida Long Course Age Group Championships July 18 to July 21, in Gainesville, where she hopes to qualify to represent Florida in the Southern Zone Age Group Championships July 29 through Aug. 2.
“FLAGS is really competitive,” Jillian says. “The best swimmers in Florida are there competing, so it brings out the best in everyone. It’s always fun.
“Fourteen-year-olds usually make the Florida zone team, so to be 13 and make it would be pretty special,” she says. “It’s weird because now I’m the youngest. I just want to show everyone that it doesn’t matter how old you are, you can still swim fast.”
Jillian joined her first swim team when she was 6 years old, after hearing her mother, Julie, a former collegiate swimmer at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, tell her how much she enjoyed swimming.
Following in her mother’s footsteps, Jillian immediately felt at home in the water.
“I remember I was one of the littlest kids there, and I just liked it,” Jillian says. “I like the calmness of it. It’s also an individual sport, so you only have to worry about yourself.”
Jillian grew up swimming in Las Vegas, before moving to Kentucky and then, eventually, to Florida, where she joined the Tsunami.
Today, Jillian trains under the guidance of Klein — her mother’s former college coach.
“It’s pretty neat,” Jillian says. “He tells me stories of all of the things that my mom accomplished, and I feel like I can do anything.”
Klein agrees the experience is unique.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Klein says. “I coached her mom when she was 20 and 21 years old, so I feel like I’m seeing what Julie was like when she was 13.”
Jillian, who trains six days a week for three hours a day, swims the 50, 100 and 200 freestyles and backstrokes. However, the 100 freestyle is her favorite event.
“The sprint events are really fun,” Jillian says. “You have to have a lot of power, and I feel like I have power.”
Jillian plans to swim for Cardinal Mooney in high school and has aspirations of swimming for Notre Dame and qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Trials.
“My mom has always told me to never give up,” Jillian says. “She says, ‘You can swim fast even when you are tired. If you train hard and never give up, then it will all work out in the end.’”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].