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Meet Rocky Mount YMCA swimmer Lance Norris, the fastest 14 year old in the country

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Rocky Mount YMCA swimmer, and Nash Central Middle School eight grader Lance Norris won a pair of gold medals at the Junior Olympics in Charlotte. He also took home six more medals, including four silvers. Norris is the fastest 14 year old in the country in the 1000-yard freestyle.

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By PATRICK MASON
Sports Writer

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Lance Norris is staring at his cellphone. The noise of swimmers splashing, the sound of the starting horn and chatter surround him. He’s on the pool deck. This scene could describe any swim meet over the past few years.

Norris doesn’t mind the noise. He probably doesn’t notice. He’s busy on his phone, though he isn’t playing a game and he’s not texting with friends. Instead, the 14-year-old Nash Central Middle School student is studying a subject he knows well.

He’s studying himself.

Norris is in his own world in these moments, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s not a good day until he feels that chlorine on his face,” Norris’ mother, Kim, said.

Norris asks his mother to record all of his races. But don’t look for a proud mother in the stands with a video camera. Kim has to record his swims on his phone, so can immediately watch and analyze once he hops out of the water. He is his own coach in a way, because he can pinpoint the important moments of his races — when he tires, how his flip turns look, or when he should have kicked it in gear.

“He has me record all of his races on his phone,” Kim said. “He wants to watch his races right away. He’ll rewind, and watch them again. He’s so into it.”

Norris is a swimmer, and has been since he can remember. At age 4 he took to the water for fun. By age 5, he was swimming laps at the Rocky Mount YMCA. Three years later, Norris was competing in meets. He swims every day, asking a parent to drive him to the Y on off days to get in some yards. 

He can’t wait until he’s old enough to drive a car, so he can make the journey to the pool whenever he wishes. It started with the basics and evolved into something so much more.

“At first, a coach started teaching me the strokes, but all I wanted to do was freestyle,” Norris said. “I learned fast, even though two of my strokes were illegal. But it was a start.”

That start was the beginning of what has been a special decade in the water for the humble kid from Rocky Mount.

***

Just a few weeks ago, over the Feb. 22-25 weekend swimming for the Rocky Mount YMCA, Norris earned a pair of gold medals at a Junior Olympics meet in Charlotte as part of a busy eight-event schedule. He medaled in all eight events, taking home four silvers with two sixth-place finishes.

The versatile swimmer competed in long-distance events like the 500-yard freestyle, the 1,000 and the mile, as well as a pair of individual medleys at 200- and 400-yard distances. Norris also competed in the 200 butterfly, 200 backstroke and 200 freestyle.

His wins came in the 400 IM (4:03.85) and the 1,000 (9:25.59). The 1,000 is 40 laps, and Norris swam each 100-yard segments faster than 1 minute. His time in that race was the fastest in the country for his age group.

A smile stretches across his face when talking about the distance events, revealing the pure joy he gets when he’s racing.

“Distance is very painful but I’m really good at it,” Norris said. “My best event is the 1,000. The 500 is too short for me to get into rhythm, and in the mile I’m so beat by the 800 and I realize I’m halfway through. In the 1,000, I know there’s an end in sight and I can keep going.”

Norris never imagined he’d be racing miles in the pool. He also never imagined thinking that the 500 was too short. At age 10, he swam the 500 and was disgusted at the thought of swimming anything longer. But he was never one for the sprint races. He noticed that the fist 50 yards of his 500 race were faster than when he swam the standalone 50-yard race.

“It was then I realized that I would be a good distance swimmer,” he said.

***

Before a swim practice at the Y this past week, Norris sat on a set of bleachers that faced the pool. All of the lanes were occupied, and he looked out at swimmers going back and forth. He grew contemplative, both about what he has already accomplished and what is yet to come.

He was asked what it feels like being the fastest 14 year old in America. Turns out, it feels like being a regular 14-year-old kid — nothing different at all.

“Sometimes in class I’ll drift off when the teacher is teaching and I’ll think about that,” Norris said. “But other than that I don’t really notice it at all. I don’t brag about it.

“There’s someone from Boise, Idaho who is pretty good, and I wonder if he’s looking at my time, not knowing what or where Rocky Mount is. But that’s as far as it goes. Everything is still normal.”

He plays video games in his free time, and hangs with friends. He goes to class and spends time doing homework. He asks for rides to get around and eats home-cooked meals. When it comes to the pool, however, he enters a different world. Those on the deck in swimsuits know who Norris is and how fast the human torpedo in the lane next to them can go.

And while others worry about competing with Norris, the eight grader’s biggest fear is time. 

“The thing that scares me the most is adding time,” Norris said. “I haven’t added time over the past two or three years, so I never want to add time. Most people don’t peak at 14 or 15, so I feel good about that. I’m still trying to get better and better.”

He has the mind of a supreme, competitive athlete, though he keeps that part of him under wraps — until he gets wet.

He tries not to slap the water after a big win, or scream loudly after seeing his time. He insists on not showing anyone up.

“I try really hard not to be that person,” Norris said. “This sport is all about beating the clock and your times. There’s races where you just go for a best time. Other people slap the water, and I admit that sometimes it’s hard not to do that stuff, but I try not to.”

His coaches tell him that by December, 2019, competing at the Olympic Trials could be a reality. There’s nothing stopping the possibilities that await. 

***

Norris has an eye to the future. He hopes to swim at a Division I program once he graduates from Nash Central in 2022.

For recruiting purposes, Norris has a power index of 13.71, a number that helps colleges with their selection process. Think of it as a measuring stick to compare swimmers. Like golf, the lower the score the better. Several top high school athletes committed to powerhouse collegiate programs like Florida or Auburn have scores under 2.

Athletes are making Division I commitments and receiving offers from top programs with scores higher Norris’ 13.71 score — and Norris accumulated that score without yet swimming in a high school meet. His times can only get faster.

He has the fastest time in the country for 14 year olds in the 1,000, and is the top-ranked swimmer in the state for his age group. 

“I have friends that joke with me saying they hope I remember them when I make it big some day,” Norris said. “But I really haven’t thought that far ahead. Everyone gets faster, I do believe in that. It’s like an arms race, and I have to stay focused.”

To help stay on track, Norris follows the careers of successful swimmers like Olympians Ricky Berens and Caeleb Dressel. He does, however, have a ghost he’s chasing that’s closer to home. That ghost is Ross Dant, a Hickory native and Newton-Conover junior who set two 1A/2A state meet records this season in the 500 freestyle and the 100 backstroke.

Dant, whose power index is 1.36, committed to N.C. State. Dant was also named to the 2017-18 USA swimming national junior team. Norris has closely followed Dant’s career, noting that the pair had similar times at the same age.

“I’ve seen all his times and they’re a lot faster than mine,” Norris said. “But if I go back to when he was 14, I’m really close to a lot of his freestyle events. I talked to his coach at (Junior Olympics) because I beat his 1,000 time by two seconds.”

As for the immediate future, Norris is working on getting his body ready for YMCA Nationals held April 3-7 in Greensboro.

“The goal is to be under 9:20 for Y Nats in the 1,000,” Norris said.

Back to work.

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