ST. CHARLES – Meagan Popp’s vast potential is coming to the surface.
Only a few weeks into her high school swimming career, the St. Charles North freshman is the proud owner of a new program record, set in the 200 individual medley during Thursday’s crosstown meet against visiting St. Charles East.
Popp finished in 2:05.42, about half a second quicker than the previous North mark set by current University of Michigan swimmer Angie Chokran. Fittingly, Chokran is the swimmer who energized Popp about the program.
“She was a big role model of mine,” Popp said before practice Friday. “We’re really good friends still to this day, and she always talked to me about how fun high school swimming was. She kind of led me on to North Star swimming.”
The doubled-edged sword of being an athlete of Popp’s caliber is people always want to muse about what’s next, rather than celebrate past achievements. It’s a pattern North coach Rob Rooney knows well, having been around Popp since her days swimming in the 8-year-old age group for the St. Charles Swim Team.
“I’ve had the opportunity to watch her progress over the last five, six years and challenge herself,” Rooney said. “We watched her break a record here, break a record there, and you kind of always look to the future when you see kids coming up like that. I’m not her primary coach with the club but I’ve had the ability to watch her swim and she’s going to be an honor to coach in high school.
“The greatest thing about her, what I’m learning, is she’s receptive to feedback because she wants to learn. I think that’s a great attribute to have for someone who’s 14 years old.”
Record aside, this month already promised mega-excitement for Popp. On Tuesday, she’s flying to Japan (via Los Angeles, then Korea) with a select team of U.S. swimmers ages 14 to 18 for an international meet in Osaka, Japan.
She qualified for the Japan-bound team – composed of 13 girls and 13 boys – through two national-level competitions earlier this year. The meet is scheduled for Sept. 24-25.
“It’s very nerve-racking to swim in a whole ’nother country and a whole new environment but I’m really excited to try something new and reach the next level in swimming,” Popp said.
Popp pulls no punches; her goal is to build toward making the 2016 Olympics. She understands the enormity of that objective, and how much devotion will be demanded to have a sliver of a chance. Major success with the North Stars is a preliminary step in the master plan.
“You look at her in three phases – there’s a local swimmer, there’s a state swimmer and there’s a national swimmer in her body,” Rooney said. “I think that if she achieves great things at the national level, she’s going to achieve great things at the high school level.”
Popp’s father, Craig, was a swimmer, which helped put the sport squarely on her radar, along with dancing, as a child.
As Thursday demonstrated, she has great potential in the 200 IM, but Rooney said the 200 freestyle, 100 breaststroke and other events also could lead to acclaim for Popp.
Even in the 200 IM, there could be more upside this season. Heck, even in North’s own pool.
“I think she probably was aiming more at the pool record [Thursday] but ended up getting the team record,” Rooney said. “She just missed the pool record (set by St. Charles East’s Emma Smith) by three one-hundredths. It was two times in a row where we’ve had the IM where she’s missed pool records by a small margin.”
Next week’s Japan journey means five missed school days for Popp, but after several domestic swimming meets during her Haines Middle School days, she’s used to the rhythm of playing catch-up.
It doesn’t look like she’ll have to play catch-up in the pool too often, though. Rooney said Popp is a key component of what he projects as “an upswing” for the program in the coming years.
“The thing that is unique about her is she’s got a heart and a will to do great,” Rooney said. “From what I’m learning and I’m seeing, being part of a team atmosphere, I think she’s really starting to believe in what high school swimming can bring to the table.”
After Thursday’s performance, it’s clear breaking records will be part of the package.
• Jay Schwab is sports editor of the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.