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Wednesday, April 25 Sports

Rainey, Abel, Blansfield: Talented Westport trio set to attend elite D-I programs

It isn't unusual for a town the stature of Westport to produce Division I athletes. The resources and quality of coaches available creates an inherent advantage almost lends itself to doing so.

But for Westport residents Ian Rainey (Michigan), Verity Abel (Duke) and Jonathan Blansfield (Northwestern), a trio of outstanding distance swimmers are all headed to top-tier Division I schools in quite the unique accomplishment. Each will depart Westport in the coming weeks to test their skills with the top competition from across the country.

"This has never really happened for three athletes to sign for Division I scholarships and for them all to be swimmers has definitely not happened," Abel said. "It's particularly interesting that we're all distance swimmers and swim similar events."

All three arrived in Westport from different places. Abel was born in England and moved to Westport at an early age. Rainey spent his upbringing in Virginia before arriving at Staples before his junior season. Blansfield was born in Colorado and moved to Westport at age five.

Each eventually found a home in the pool in the area and their hard work has led them to the top of the heap.

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Ian Rainey

Rainey had to find a new home out of the pool before finding one in it. Moving to Westport in the middle of high school wasn't easy for Rainey, but quickly found a place with the Wilton Y Wahoos.

"The first year almost was pretty tough making friends at school," Rainey said. "Going into my junior year was a big transition. But having a swim team and a group of guys and girls to become close friends with right away helped a lot."

The boys high school swimming season, which lasts from December to March, collides with the national championship swimming season. Because of this, many top swimmers choose to concentrate on the club season. Rainey swam a few meets for Staples in 2012-2013 before, along with the guidance of Wahoos coach Randy Erlenbach, chose to focus solely on the Wahoos.

"(The high school season) can detract from a swimmer's ability to be (an elite athlete), just because of the time away from the pool training," Erlenbach said. "They make that decision just prior to be really good. Once you get really good it's a no-brainer."

Rainey will be traveling to Junior Nationals in Irvine, Calif. from July 30-Aug 3. A swimmer can enter an unlimited number of events and Rainey figures to be busy -- Rainey plans to swim at least six events. Last year, Rainey placed eighth in the 400 meter individual medley (4:24.46) and 11th in the 800 meter freestyle (8:13.99).

"Hopefully I can try to final in every event," Rainey said. "The 400 IM is probably my best event. Last year I got eighth. Hopefully I can get top three this year."

Rainey is coming off a strong performance at the YMCA Short Course Nationals in April. Rainey took first in 1000 yard freestyle (9:05.31) and the 500 yard freestyle (4:25.85). Rainey also finished second in the mile (15:12.60).

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Following the national stage, Rainey will take his talents to Ann Arbor for one of the premier programs in the country. Michigan has 12 NCAA team titles, the most of any school.

"I don't think I've ever had anyone that works as hard as Ian does day in and day out," Erlenbach said. "He loves to train, and if he doesn't train his hardest every day he's kind of disappointed."

Verity Abel

With the girls swim season in the fall and not in direct conflict with the national season, Abel was able to carve her name into the Staples record books without compromising her Wahoos career. In total, Abel holds six school records and collected numerous FCIAC and state championships during her four-year career.

"I'm proud and I'm happy I was able to do all four years on the high school team," Abel said. "High school was such a thrill and a lot of fun to have two different teams that I could relate with."

Abel broke her own record in the 200 yard freestyle (1:50.79) at the Class LL championships last November. Weeks earlier, Abel (1:50.23) broke the FCIAC record in the same event held by Ridgefield High alum and U.S. Olympic swim medalist Janel Jorgensen.

"(Abel) is a fierce competitor," Erlenbach said. "She will give you 100 percent of whatever she has that given day when it's time to race. She is a great role model for all our girls."

As a senior, Abel dominated the 500 yard freestyle at the Class LL (4:58.98) and State Open (4:51.34) meets.

The long distances are where Abel starred for the Wahoos. At YMCA Short Course Nationals, Abel finished 11th in the 1000 yard freestyle (10:00.28) and fifth in the 400 yard individual medley (4:20.41).

Abel, along with most of the Wahoos, will be competing at the Y's Long Course Nationals July 28-Aug. 1 and plans to swim four events. Able won the 1,500 at LCN with a time of 17:04.29 as a sophomore. Last summer, Abel competed at Junior Nationals and placed 18th in the 1,500 (16:57.45).

"It's my goal for the meet to win the 1,500," Abel said. "It would be something I'd like to do in returning to the meet; I want to make my last summer really memorable."

Abel figures to shine in the 1,650 among other events with the Blue Devils, the same school Erlenbach swam for in the 1980s.

"I'm a little nervous because it's a big transition from club swimming to a college team," Abel said. "But I think the level we have trained at and the competition that we've both gone through as well as Jonathan has prepared us well for college environment."

Jonathan Blansfield

Blansfield began swimming for the Westport Family Y Water Rats program at age seven and quickly became the face of the program. Blansfield holds the record in the 400 freestyle set as a 10-year-old.

"He will probably have an impact for years to come because the kids saw him train that are now in eighth grade will be able to hold on to the things that he's done," said Water Rats and Staples coach Frisk Driscoll, who has worked with Blansfield for the past four years.

Blansfield swam all four years in Staples colors and shattered a number of records in the process. However, the career ended in bittersweet fashion as Blansfield missed the Class LL meet in June through illness, and as a result was only able to participate in relays at the State Open a week later. Blansfield's final win for the Wreckers was a dominating performance in the 500 yard freestyle (4:35.98) at FCIACs.

"It was disappointing, I had been working all season to that," Blansfield said. "It was my senior year and it was kind of the culmination of four years of hard work. I was really bummed to have gotten sick a few nights before but there's nothing you can do."

Blansfield became the undisputed leader of the team during his junior year, when the departure of other swimmers, including Rainey, almost made it a necessity. Driscoll was pleased with the progress Blansfield made through his four years as a Wrecker, both in and out of the pool.

"He's so much stronger emotionally," Driscoll said. "When he first started working together he had the talent, but I don't know if he had the confidence; that was kind of an up-and-down battle. The way he handles it and can bounce back he's completely different. He can handle stuff better."

Blansfield will accompany Water Rats teammates Bryce Keblish and John Whiteside to Junior Nationals with the hope of finishing his high school career on a high note.

"It's surreal," Blansfield said of the meet. "It's the best junior swimmers in the country and an incredibly fast meet. It's great experience to race against the best of the best. I'm looking forward to having that opportunity again."

Onto the Next Level

Recently, all three participated at the Connecticut Senior Championships, which were held July 10-13 at Wesleyan and open to swimmers 19 and under. Blansfield and Rainey went head to head in a number of races as the event served as a tune-up for the national meet.

The meets are winding down for the busy trio before each will be thrust into a more competitive environment. While swimming will continute to be the rotational point of the lives of Rainey, Abel and Blansfield's lives for the next four years, each chose an academically-inclined school with an eye towards the future.

"Swimming isn't something we are going to pursue after college, so going into a good academic school is something we needed to do to move on in the real world," Rainey said.