INA, Ill. – Rend Lake Aquatic Youth swimmer Katie Cully is USA Swimming’s second fastest 9-10 year old in the 50 meter freestyle, according to this month’s issue of Swimming World Magazine. USA Swimming is the largest youth swimming association in the country and governs all youth swimming programs in the U.S.
Cully, 10, of Marion, swam a 30.77 long course in August at the USA Swimming Central Zone Championships in Lincoln, Neb. New York’s Kristen Romano finished in 30.51 on the west coast at right about the same time this summer. The two went head to head at a race in the spring that Romano won.
“I hope someday I can beat her,” Cully said. “I know she is a better swimmer than me, but I know I can beat her.
“I think it’s great for me and the team,” Cully said of the national ranking. “I’m excited when I hear it.”
RLAY Otters coach Laura Johnston was probably more excited. But she wasn’t surprised.
“The pure strength of Katie is amazing,” Johnston said. “I think it’s outstanding that she’s put us on the map. Southern Illinois period, in the world of swimming, is not a renowned area, especially when you are neighboring Indiana and St. Louis. Even in Illinois high school swimming, the times are unfathomable because of the Chicago area. Who would think, in a small area like ours – a team of 62 kids – to have that kind of caliber of performance is amazing. In the big cities, the St. Louis area for example, they have teams of over 200 kids. And here we are in Ina. For us to be sitting where we are sitting is really, really fun. ”
Although she is uber-competitive at a young age, Cully’s favorite thing about swimming is seeing her opponents in a social setting rather than the lane next to her.
“I love seeing my friends because through the winter we have so many meets on the weekends and basically every weekend is when I get to see all my friends from other teams.”
“I’ve had coaches and parents come up to me and say, you know, your daughter is just as good of a loser as she is a winner,” said her mom, Sonya Cully. “I’m more proud of that than any win.”
But don’t get Katie wrong. She wants to beat every one of them. The other thing she loves about swimming is that, in the pool, she can prove them all wrong.
“I love doing what people say I can’t do. Like, they say I can’t swim such a time in my 100 freestyle. Then I go out and swim it.”
And she’s been proving them wrong a lot. Cully dominated at the Great Gator Times meet in October in Cape Girardeau, winning all nine of her events as the 9-10 girls’ high-point champion. She went undefeated in seven events at the Ozark A Championships held on the weekend of Nov. 20-21 at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
She won the 25 and 50 freestyle at the Illinois-Missouri YMCA Championships in 2009 and was the 100 free and 50 fly champion in 2010. She helped the 9-10 girls 200 free relay team break a 25 year old Y district record. She placed top three in a whopping seven events at the USA Swimming Short Course Championships in February, and was runner up in the 50 and 100 free, 50 and 100 backstroke, and 50 meter butterfly. At the USA Long Course Championships in July, Cully took first place in the 50, 100 and 200 freestyle, and the 50 and 100 meter backstroke. She was runner up in the 50 fly.
Johnston said each swim meet the team travels to – from Florida to right next door in Missouri – provides a learning experience that would not be possible without a strong network of supporters.
“Swim teams can’t function without support ... whole, all-out support from parents. And her parents are the best.”
Her father, Scott Cully, is a research and development scientist for the agricultural corporation Syngenta. But that’s during the week. On the weekends, he is an official stroke and turn judge for both YMCA and USA Swimming. He said he started being a judge to help the team out and be close to Katie at the meets. He was athletic as a kid, he said, but he couldn’t think of anything like the success his daughter has found in the pool.
“It makes us very proud,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing. Her work ethic and her love for the sport make it all possible.”
Her goal is to be a collegiate swimmer at either Georgia or Illinois, she said. The family moved to Southern Illinois years ago from the Champaign area where Cully was born. With a goal like that at the age of 10, the Cully’s make sure Katie remembers to be a kid.
“We have lots of conversations about that,” Sonya said. “And yes, it is still fun for her. But our concern is that she is so competitive right now and she loves it so much right now that we do worry about burnout.”
She spends one to two hours, four to five nights a week, training with Johnston at RLC. She has also started stretching at home four to five days a week to develop her core. Sonya said if there is a night Cully wants to take off, they make sure to give her the break. This summer, Cully took a long break from swimming to play her other sport, softball.
“As parents, we got to regroup,” Sonya said. “But I think it gave her time too, to decide if this was something she wants to keep doing. And by the time we went to the Ozark Championships and Zones, she was geared up for it with kind of a fresh new perspective on things.”
It was at Zones that Cully was able to PR in the 50 free and become USA’s runner up. When asked what she thinks about when she is swimming, she said, “I just think of my strokes and how I swim them.”
Katie took to swimming like an Otter to water, starting at a very young age in Marion and Carbondale. Scott frequently conducts research on test plots at the RLC campus, so the large indoor Aquatics Center there really caught his eye. At the same time, Johnston was looking to give the Cullys some passes to the pool.
“I just wanted to get into the pool,” Scott said. “I thought it would be a good opportunity for Katie and it just happened that they were starting the team right around then. It all worked out pretty well.”
She was 8 when she first joined the team in 2008. By January of ’09 Cully was sweeping the 8-under division at meets.
“I think [RLAY] is a very competitive program,” Sonya added. “Swimming as a sport is competitive. I think it’s every kid’s dream to go in and do really, really well. But it’s a sport where you’ve got to put the hours in at the pool. Laura works them out, that’s for sure.”
“She catches on really well,” Johnston said of Cully. “For example; If I show her new drills, she might be not able to do them the very first time, but within a few minutes, as she keeps thinking about it, she’s got it. Her skills and her swimming ability makes you forget that she’s only 10 years old. With some of her skills, she has surpassed what teenagers have to work hard to accomplish. When you sit here and watch her swim, you can forget that she’s a baby in the swimming world.”
For more information about the RLAY Otters, visit online at www.rlayotters.swim-team.us.