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All-area girls swimmer of the year, Jefferson Forest's Tara Enneking, poses for a portrait on March 26, 2019.

Tara Enneking stood on the pool deck at Oakwood Country Club on Saturday and looked around. Minutes before, the deck had been packed with swimmers and spectators as the Lynchburg Aquatic League’s ‘A’ Meet Championships wound to a close.

Now the crowd had thinned out as little swimmers and big ones, too, exited the club.

Enneking had her own exit to make. This one would be a little slower and more reflective than normal.

“It’s sad to finally say goodbye,” she said.

Yes, goodbyes are sometimes hard, especially when laced with finality. A chapter was coming to a close; a new one about to begin.

So Enneking lingered a few moments. The Hill City swim team standout had just competed in her final LAL event.

And as far as goodbyes go, she went out in style.

Enneking won three events Saturday: the 100 freestyle (59.25), 50 breaststroke (35.07) and 100 backstroke (1:06.17).

She set two new ‘A’ Meet records. Enneking broke a 25-year-old record in the 100 back, a 1:08.99 set by Cary Chipley in the summer of 1994, and eclipsed Amber Wingfield’s 2009 mark of 35.45 in the 50 breaststroke.

And if that wasn’t enough, Enneking received what to her was the most stunning news of the day before the final set of relays began.

She was named the LAL’s Swimmer of the Year, an honor dubbed the Rob Quel Award, given to an outstanding swimmer who “embodies the spirit of competitive swimming and team” unity.

She was a lock. Coaches from the 12-team league were in such agreement that they did not consider another swimmer for the award and unanimously nominated Enneking.

Here’s a snapshot of the 18-year-old, who started out in the LAL when she was 7.

Competitive: She won two state titles while at Jefferson Forest High.

Driven: Life in the LAL took her to year-round club swimming, where the work got exponentially tougher, and to an eventual scholarship to swim at ODU.

Supportive: She hangs out with the league’s younger swimmers, the ones just learning the sport, and offers them advice.

“That’s what makes her unique,” Hill City coach Hank Reed said. “She really does give love to those younger kids. They hang on her. A lot of teenagers, they don’t want anything to do with those younger kids.”

Enneking, who was described at Saturday’s meet as “altruistic and passionate, competitive and encouraging,” ends her career with Hill City having set 17 team records in the senior girls division.

There’s only one she doesn’t own: the 100 fly. She didn’t swim that event Saturday, but barely missed the team mark of 1:04.99 by 24 hundredths of a second at a recent meet.

“I swam that event the last three meets, and he [Reed] wanted me to focus on the events that I love, because it’s my last meet,” Enneking said. “Looking back on it, I kind of wish I’d swam it. But at the same time, I don’t know if I could’ve gone much faster.”

The Quel Award honors Rob Quel, a longtime Lynchburg City Schools administrator and LAL swim coach who died in 2017.

“I’ve always looked up to winners of that award,” Enneking said, “because it’s a big deal.”

Peakland swim coach Greg Hofmann has watched Enneking progress over the years. He, too, swam at ODU.

“She’s definitely, overall, the most talented swimmer that I’ve witnessed as a coach in Lynchburg,” Hofmann said. “She doesn’t have a weak stroke, so the coach can plug her in wherever and win that event. … I’m excited to see what she’s gonna do at my alma mater.”

There are many different ways to view the LAL. For some swimmers, the league is just something to do in the summer. For others, it’s a way to stay competitive and in swimming shape or a chance to hang out.

But for Enneking, the LAL was something more. As the smell of chlorine wafted through the humid summer air and shouts of encouragement echoed through swim clubs, she returned to the league year after year because she loved it, because it was a chance to help younger swimmers.

“I’ve seen kids like me who might not like club swimming, but they go into it anyway because they love the LAL,” she said.

And who knows — maybe one of those girls will one day become the area’s best swimmer, and fasten her eyes on all of Enneking’s records, both the Hill City and the league marks.

Still, “it’s cool to have such a lasting impact on the LAL,” she said.

It works the other way, too: the league has impacted her.

So after receiving the Quel award, Enneking dove off the blocks one last time. She sprinted down and back in the mixed 200 freestyle relay. There were no awards this time. A boys team from Oakwood took the title.

But Enneking had already left her mark.

“While I’m gone at ODU,” she said, “part of me will still be here.”

Reach Ben Cates at (434) 385-5527.

Ben Cates covers high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5527. 

Ben Cates covers high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5527.

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