By Lee Noles
MONROE – On a wet winter’s day, Kaylee Hamblin meticulously tests her parking skills as her father, Troy, patiently sits in the passenger seat. Hamblin, the oldest of eight, carefully pulls the family car perfectly into an open space.
“Only 230 more days” Hamblin says with a prideful smile of turning 16. “Yep. I have it on countdown.”
A driver’s license may be the only thing distracting Hamblin’s laser focus away from swimming. For the most part, though, she is a nose-to-the grindstone athlete who practices seven times a week both morning and nights at the Mecklenburg Swim Association. She lifts weights another five times a week at Parkwood High School, where she excels with a 4.25 GPA.
The hard work in the pool is paying off for Hamblin, who has never lost a 100-yard breaststroke swim for the Rebels. She will take her first step toward defending last year’s 3A state championship in the event this weekend, when she swims at the 3A Western Regional meet in Charlotte.
“I was surprised for it to happen in one year,” Hamblin said. “I wasn’t expecting that. But I had a lot I wanted to accomplish as far as goals, but I am glad I was able to accomplish them.”
It’s easy to understand why Hamblin, a sophomore, has been taken aback by her recent success. Gymnastics was her first passion, and it appeared it would stay that way until injuries and a growth spurt had her coach recommending a different path for the then 8-year-old.
“She mentioned I should swim,” Hamblin said. “I don’t why, but she did.”
Hamblin took the advice wholeheartedly and joined a local year-round YMCA club in Omaha, Neb., where she tried backstroke.
“Too boring,” Hamblin said.
“Too popular,” she added.
After ruling out butterfly, breaststroke was the only one left. Hamblin became hooked.
“You get it or you don’t,” she said of the technically driven stroke. “And I get it … It’s my favorite. Even if I couldn’t do it, I still like the breaststroke.”
Susie Rhoads took over as Parkwood’s coach this season. Although Rhoads has known Hamblin for a couple of years, she still marvels at her technique.
“Her timing is really good,” Rhoads said. “When you watch breaststroke, if their timing is off you can tell. Some people in breaststroke can have a good pull or a good stroke, but she has both. It’s all coordinated very well.”
Hamblin dominated last season in a talent-laden conference, which included state champion Charlotte Catholic, as well as Marvin Ridge and Weddington. All three programs finished in the top four at the state meet. She followed with another easy win at regionals before capturing the state championship in a time of 1:03.08-a good two seconds ahead of second place.
Hamblin has continued her strong showing by swimming the fastest time in 2018 in North Carolina (1:01.2) and the fourth-fastest in the nation for her age group (15-16-year-olds). Hamblin credits the weightlifting class she attends with football players at Parkwood as a big reason for cutting more than two seconds off her time since last February.
“It was rough start, but now it’s paying off every day,” Hamblin said of lifting weights.
The success has Hamblin hoping to cut another second to make her eligible for the U.S. Olympic Trials. She knows making it will be a challenge after the U.S. won gold and bronze in 2016 in the event and features Olympic champion and world record holder, Lilly King, who Hamblin admires. If the trials become a reality, it would bring Hamblin’s journey full circle after the recent announcement the event will take place in Omaha.
“I’m really excited if I could make it,” said Hamblin, who moved to North Carolina in 2015. “I would have a chance to go back to my hometown and see all my old friends and old coaches who helped me get started.”
The talent and leadership Hamblin possesses hasn’t been lost on her Rebel teammates as they named her captain this season. It’s a role her large family has prepared her for. The group includes 14-year-old Emilee, a Parkwood swimmer, and 13-year-old Gavin, who plays flag football. Gage, 11, and Aliya, 10, are into soccer while Adelyn, 7, dances. Three-year old Maysie and three-month-old Jack tag along with Troy and his wife, Sarah, to the numerous sporting events.
“We put 1,000 miles on the car this month just going back and forth for swimming,” Troy Hamblin said.
Kaylee and Emilee do their part by babysitting and helping the younger ones fix breakfast in the morning. The extra leadership has translated to the Rebels, where Rhoads said Kaylee is a big asset.
“She’ll make a great coach someday,” Rhoads said. “We will be practicing our diving and she would say ‘Hey, you need to correct this.’”
Rebel sophomore swimmer Eva Suler describes Kaylee as a motivational person.
“She knows techniques that a lot of us don’t know,” Suler said. “She is encouraging as well. She is always showing us things that will make our stroke better.”
As the season closes, Hamblin said the only drawback she’s faced is trying to live up to other people’s expectations.
“When you win it as a freshman, people come up and say, you should win it as a sophomore, junior and senior,” Hamblin said. “But they don’t know who is coming up each year, but I also see that as a challenge.”
The possibility of qualifying for the Olympic trials isn’t the only event in the near future for Hamblin.
“I’m definitely looking forward to (getting a license),” Hamblin said. “I will get to drive everywhere and get to go places on my own.”