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Keeping Her Head Above Water : Swimming: Busy Beverly Hills sophomore Meredith Booker is ahead of the competition in the pool and in the classroom.

June 21, 1990|J. A. ADANDE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Before anyone rushes to hype Meredith Booker's chances to be America's first black female Olympic swimmer, it's important to keep one thing in mind. She's only 14.

Booker, a sophomore at Beverly Hills High, has physical abilities and emotional maturity that make it easy to forget her age.

"She swims as fast as a young adult," said John Apgar, her coach on the Team Santa Monica club. "And she's always been around older groups, so she has the maturity of someone who's older."

Booker won the 100-yard freestyle and finished second in the 100 backstroke in the CIF Southern Section 3-A Division championships this year. When she was 12, she swam the fifth-fastest backstroke and the 18th-fastest freestyle times ever in that age group. Booker holds Southern California records for 12 year olds in the 50 freestyle and the 100 freestyle.

This weekend she will compete in the Meet of Champions at Mission Viejo, the first long course event of the summer. Booker wants to qualify for the Senior Nationals meet, which will be held July 29 to Aug. 3 in Austin, Tex.

"That's my own goal for the summer," Booker said.

Booker's personal ambitions are what drive her, and are also the source of the pressure she feels, she said.

"My coach and my parents don't put a lot of pressure on me," Booker said. "I want to perform and do well. That's where the pressure comes from."

Apgar is wary of adding more pressure by placing unreal expectations on Booker. Nevertheless, when it comes to evaluating her abilities, he spouts praise like a geyser.

"Meredith is the most talented swimmer, at the youngest age, I've ever had," Apgar said. "She's a person with a really bright future."

Barrett Tester, her coach at Beverly Hills, likes Booker's attitude.

"She's very coachable," Tester said. "Her attitude toward competition is very good, too. She's the type of girl you want on your team."

Both coaches cite Booker's work ethic as the key to her success. She currently swims 17 hours a week, including three before-school sessions at USC that begin at 6 a.m.

"I spend a lot of time working out," Booker said. "Whatever I've accomplished I feel I've worked very hard for."

In time, the hard work could result in a berth on the 1992 Olympic swim team.

"She'd have to come very fast from this point," Apgar said. "It can be done, but it's not obligated or expected."

Tester said: "She's going to have a shot. She has a good chance to make the trials, and anything can happen in swimming in two years."

If she did make the Olympic swimming team, it would be a first for a black athlete. Booker is not concerned about making history.

"I don't really think of things like that," she said. "I'd be happy if I just made the Olympic trials because I'd accomplish more than a lot of other people have."

Tester said Booker must prove herself in one respect.

"She still needs to have a great meet at a great time," Tester said.

Booker had a chance to do that in April, but she finished fourth in the Western Junior Nationals competition in Iowa.

"It is the first time I made the top eight, and I was pretty happy with that," Booker said. "But I was a little disappointed in my performance."

Booker and her support group of coaches and parents felt that tension had a big effect on her performance. She said she is aware that others are feeling stress before a big meet. "I looked around and I realized there were a lot of people who were more nervous than I was," Booker said.

Apgar said the nervousness serves as a reminder of Booker's age.

"Because of the way she carries herself, because of the maturity, people forget she's 14," Apgar said. "Occasionally you can sympathize with her if she gets a case of nerves."

It's easy to think the 6-foot Booker is older than 14. She answers questions as smoothly as a veteran. Part of her maturity comes from being around older people all her life. She started school at 4, and at an accelerated pace, had finished third grade by the time she was seven. She will be only 16 when she graduates.

Booker said being the youngest member of the crowd has not been much of a problem.

"I got used to it," Booker said. "It seems like I'm the same age everybody else is. I don't think it makes any difference how old I am."

Booker's key to success in the classroom is the same as in the pool: hard work.

"Kids at school think I'm really smart or something, but I just work a lot," said Booker, who with weighted honors courses has a 4.2 grade-point average.

Booker said she does schoolwork, "every spare moment I have," even if it means studying Spanish during nutrition break or staying up until midnight to work on a report. Two of her early choices for college, Stanford and UC Berkeley, are strong in academics and swimming. She said she would eventually like to go to medical school.

Booker began taking swimming lessons when she was 3, partly to ensure that she would be safe around water. She began swimming competitively at 7, when a coach asked that she join a swim team.

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