Grace Countie stands out in swimming crowds – on the deck, in races and even in the warm-down pool when swim caps are all you can otherwise identify.
On the deck, the leggy 6-1 Leesville Road junior – ranked third in the state by collegeswimming.com – towers above peers.
In races, those strong legs propelled her to an N.C. High School Athletic Association 50-yard freestyle state record in the 2016 4A finals. She defends her 50 title and chases the 100-freestyle gold medal in the 2017 4A state finals Friday at the Triangle Aquatic Center.
“Her glide is seemingly effortless, but she puts a lot of work and effort into her strokes,” said Mike Laubacher, her club team coach with the Marlins of Raleigh. “With the length of her strokes she is able to grab and move a lot of water.”
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Countie was born to swim.
Her parents, Matthew and Jill, were both college swimmers at North Carolina, but they didn’t push Grace into the sport.
She tells a story of being drawn to the water as a 3-year-old when she saw older kids at the neighborhood pool competing for the Harrington Grove Stingrays.
“I begged my parents to sign me up,” Countie said. “It looked cool. I love the water – swimming, floating. I wasn’t very good at first, but I had fun.”
She tried other sports growing up, including gymnastics, basketball, tennis, track and field and dance. But nothing came as naturally as swimming. By eighth grade she committed herself to training year-round with her club team.
Her NCHSAA 50-free state record time is 22.75 seconds, and she is a strong threat to lower the mark. In a December USA Swimming meet, she clocked 22.54 to rank No. 3 in the nation. In last week’s 4A East Regional, she beat her state record with a 22.59, but state records are officially set in the state finals.
She also won the 100 free 4A East Regional in 50.37. In both races she beat the standards to earn automatic All-American honors.
Much of her sprint speed resulted from understanding her proportionally long legs with arm strokes was a distinct advantage. Her hips are about even with a 6-3 person.
“A coach told me I’m tall and to swim long,” Countie said. “I realized I can be more efficient with my arms and legs by having my limbs push me through the water.”
Laubacher noted Olympic champion Michael Phelps is 6-4, but he has a proportionally long torso that especially benefits him in the butterfly.
“Grace is able to grab tremendous amounts water with her strokes and that gives her momentum for the next stroke,” Laubacher said. “She has a tremendous feel for the water.”
Countie’s career accelerated once she grew dedicated as an eighth-grader and gained future experience competing last summer in the U.S. Olympic Team trials in Omaha. But she also values a boost from the high school team experience at Leesville Road.
Countie and The Pride’s strong cast dominated the Cap-8 Conference team title two weeks ago by 274.5 points and the 4A East Regional last week by 108. Leesville Road swept all three relays in both meets, with Countie on two foursomes.
“I enjoyed meeting a lot of people on the high school team,” Countie said. “The practices are tough, but the team is fun.”