South Xtra: Peters freestyler hopes to contend

SWIMMING

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A year ago, Peters Township freestyler Saorise Palu-Benson got upstream of most of the WPIAL.

She was a sophomore ranked in the top 10 in the 200-yard freestyle and was a member of the Indians' 200- and 400-freestyle relays. To top things off, she was top five in the 500-yard freestyle.

This year, she's bringing a new form of quiet confidence to every competition.

"Her biggest thing is that she's smiling all the time," Peters Township coach Tom Fletcher said. "Even though she doesn't say much, the smile says more. Her happiness and comfort is making her swim fast."

Fletcher explained that apprehension made Palu-Benson perform inconsistently last season. But now, she's a regular on the Class AAA top times lists.

As of the beginning of this month, Palu-Benson was third in the 500-yard freestyle with a time of 5:09.34. Only Pine-Richland's Kristen Murslack and Oakland Catholic's Leah Smith, two quality swimmers who have earned statewide reputations, were in front of Palu-Benson.

Palu-Benson's 59.22 in the 100-yard butterfly put her in the number five spot.

"I'm swimming the 100 fly at WPIALs this year," Palu-Benson said.

Palu-Benson's reason for her confidence and consistent performances this season is simple.

"I think I just have more experience with it all," she said.

"We try to stress, 'Control what you can control,'" Fletcher explained.

He cited Oakland Catholic's Smith, a freestyler and World Cup winner. Fletcher said if you always swim against Smith but cannot beat her, then it is pointless to keep your focus on her.

"Saorise controls her own race," Fletcher said. "There's more trusting on both [coaching and athlete] sides -- it was really evident at South Fayette."

Peters swam against Class AA power South Fayette early this month. Palu-Benson was clutch in three relays, as well as the 500-yard freestyle. The Lions put up their best 500-swimmer, Mary Rosati, in the event. But Palu-Benson won the race in 5:12, a few seconds ahead of Rosati.

South Fayette's girls ultimately defeated Peters, 96-87.

"I told her to swim her race a certain way. She listened, and it worked out really well," Fletcher said. "She trusts in the coaches and in herself. She's so much more steady this year."

As the regular season transitions toward the WPIAL championship meet, Peters Township swimmers talk of additional performance aids, such as shaving to reduce drag or wearing high-tech wetsuits. But Palu-Benson helps the Indians' girls team by being what Fletcher calls a "silent captain."

"We see the girls giggle after we see her say something under her breath," he said. "She's so quiet that last year I could count the number of words she said. Now she's much more open -- she kind of makes little jokes under her breath."

Palu-Benson's laid-back levity is a positive influence on the Peters Township team, which includes her younger sister, Loeva. But Fletcher explained that the biggest effect Palu-Benson has on her teammates is in the water.

"Saorise is the definition of a quiet leader," Fletcher said. "She pretty much listens to everything we tell her. She doesn't do it with a lot of talk, she just goes to work. She does her thing and others follow."

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