Prep Insider Blog

Hurricane Maria destroyed his town. South Meck swimming gave him a new home, a new start

(from left) Jacob Rauch, Valance Washington, coach Leslie Berens, and Sinclair Lawson. Rauch and Lawson are state championship contenders this season.
(from left) Jacob Rauch, Valance Washington, coach Leslie Berens, and Sinclair Lawson. Rauch and Lawson are state championship contenders this season.

On the morning of September 20, powerful Hurricane Maria made landfall in eastern Puerto Rico.

The killer storm swept across the island, destroying homes, devastating the power grid, and burying towns and cities under feet of floodwater.

Along the way, Maria nearly washed away the dreams of a standout high school swimmer who had hoped his senior season would land him a college scholarship.

But that swimmer, 17-year-old Valance Washington, found a home with family – the South Mecklenburg High swim family.

"We’ve always been a family," South Mecklenburg swim coach Leslie Berens says.

"I really appreciate the way I’ve been accepted," Washington adds.

Washington, whose family lives on the outskirts of San Juan, didn’t land with just any high school swim team. He’s spending his senior year with a program that is three-time defending state 4A champion in the boys’ division, and has finished in the top eight the past two years in girls’ swimming and diving.

Most of the top finishers from last year’s boys’ state championship team have graduated, but enough remain to contend for a fourth straight title. The girls’ team, however, appears poised for a state crown.

"We would like this to be a special year," says senior Sinclair Larson, who finished fourth at the state meet in the 100-meter backstroke and fifth in the 200-individual medley last season.

Boys’ leader Jacob Rauch, a senior who was third in the state 100-meter backstroke finals and swam the anchor leg of the championship 200 freestyle relay team, says the Sabres are loaded again.

"We lost a lot of seniors, but we have a lot of really talented freshmen and other newcomers," Rauch says.

One of those new faces is Washington, who swam on a Puerto Rican record-setting 400-meter medley relay team two years ago and was invited to compete in the Olympic trials for Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria spared his home because it was sheltered by a mountain, he says, but life on the island was shattered.

In the days following the storm, he was able to send emails to relatives in Charlotte from the hospital where his father, a doctor, works. "They had a generator running there," Washington says.

He made plans to move to Charlotte for his senior year, with many schools in Puerto Rico closed due to the lack of electricity. Knowing that he would be attending South Mecklenburg, he went about getting on the team.

"I got an email from him, and I asked our athletics director, ‘Can we help him?’ " Berens recalls. The Sabres cleared all hurdles, including eligibility issues with the N.C. High School Athletic Association, and Washington became a Sabre swimmer.

"The team has really taken him in," she says.

Washington says he was excited to join a powerful swim team, whose alumni include 2008 and 2012 Olympic gold medalist Ricky Berens – Leslie’s son.

South Mecklenburg is much bigger than Washington’s 700-student school in Puerto Rico, and the caliber of swimming is tougher. "But I’ve been working hard," he says.

Swimmers like Larson and Rauch give Washington rides to practice at the Providence High pool and have helped him acclimate to his new surroundings.

Berens says it’s normal for Larson and Rauch to take leadership roles.

"They lead by example, and the other kids see that," she says. "Having kids like that is a big reason for our success over the years."

Larson says the girls’ program has gotten better in her four years at South Mecklenburg. "My first year, we finished 23rd in the state," she says. "This year, I think we’re ready to make some noise."

The girls’ team also included junior Ellie Marquardt, who placed third at the state meet in the 500-meter freestyle; and the boys have state meet diving finalists Ethan and Luke Foster, who are twins.

"I am proud of being a family," Berens says. "And this year, being a family means something a little more."

Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle