Penn Hills senior Gabriel Larson staked his place as a stroke specialist at the WPIAL Class AAA championships last Thursday and Friday at the University of Pittsburgh. He won the 200-yard individual medley (1:51.41) and the 100-yard breaststroke (56.78).
The 100-yard breaststroke win held particular significance for Larson. He beat Gateway's Andrew Nosbisch after tying Nosbisch for second place last year.
"It was really cool," recalled Larson. "Drew and I are close friends. It was a very kind competition, but definitely motivating ... especially with tying him last year and losing to his brother [Luke] the year before."
Nosbisch got off to a fast start in the 100-yard breaststroke, but Larson passed Nosbisch at the first turn. "I was in the lead for the rest of the time," Larson said.
Nosbisch did gain on Larson for a close finish. But Larson was the clear winner, 0.95 seconds ahead of Nosbisch's 57.38.
Nosbisch's relative spacing in the 100-yard breaststroke race was something Larson only learned in conjunction with the race video he viewed. Larson's speed had come primarily from his own drive, and not his view of Nosbisch.
"I've learned over the years to push myself," he said. Larson added that he pushed himself better in a race situation, however.
"Having a race a little ahead of you or starting to catch up to you makes you find that little bit of extra energy you didn't know you had. ... I'm definitely the kind of swimmer who uses the competition to push myself."
Last year, Larson competed in the 200-yard freestyle event at the WPIAL championships, in addition to his 100-yard breaststroke.
He placed sixth in the 200 free with a time of 1:43.64. So, what was the difference between this season and last that allowed Larson to win both of his WPIAL events?
Larson cited training and experience. "I definitely trained a lot harder trying to get the top spot," said Larson. "I've been chasing it since freshman year."
This season, Larson added between three and four hours of swim training each week to his regimen. This meant that when many Penn Hills high school swim team members left the pool after their practice, Larson stayed for Penn Hills Dolphins Club practice.
Another difference for Larson was that he switched from his junior year freestyle tendencies back to his individual medley roots. Larson said that because he was more focused on freestyle last year, he did not train as much on individual medley technique as he did in the 2012-13 season.
"I got a lot of IM work done during high school practices, when last year, I wouldn't have," Larson said. He added that his IM work included drills for breaststroke as well as the transition from backstroke to breaststroke (as in an individual medley race).
Larson's 2012-13 commitment to extra training has been a remarkable one, as he is a student of PA Cyber Charter School and does not attend class at Penn Hills. Larson's studies through PA Cyber include two classes per semester at CCAC. When he graduates from high school this spring, he already will have completed 28 college credits.
Larson already has signed with Pitt. His current academic interests include exercise physiology, but his CCAC credits will springboard his start with whatever university program he chooses.
But before Larson can claim Trees Pool as his home pool, the PIAA championship meet will take place. Larson intends to take on the state after a full taper in his practices. He believes this will stack the deck in his favor.
"I'm looking to win both [the IM and the 100-yard breast stroke]," Larson said.