There was a moment Thursday night during the 100-meter butterfly at the Fairland Aquatics Center in Laurel, when all eight lanes appeared empty. Each of the swimmers had disappeared into the depths of the pool for their turns and there was a moment of peace, calm and suspense.
That moment was brief, and interrupted when Janet Hu exploded from the water, the first to re-emerge by more than two seconds. She headed back to the wall where she claimed her second victory in as many events in the 13-14 age group at the Potomac Valley Swimming Age Group Championships.
Despite her remarkable talent, Hu, who is 13 and swims for Curl-Burke, doesn’t strike fear with her mere presence. She is admittedly shy; a nice person, her opponents said.
“She’s always been great,” said Catherine Mulquin, 14, who finished third in the 100-meter freestyle. Hu won the event in 2:09.58.
Hu has, however, long been an imposing figure in the pool.
“Outside the pool and inside the pool its different,” said her brother, Phillip Hu, 14, also a successful swimmer. “Inside the pool I’m sure people are intimidated by her.”
While Janet Hu, who attends Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church, speaks quietly – when she talks at all – her times brag for her. She owns three National Age Group Records, holding the all-time best times among 11 and 12 year olds (she set them in December, before turning 13) in the 50 back (25.76 seconds), the 100 back (55.68) and the 50 butterfly (25.10).
“I’m really proud of the national age group records I set,” Hu said before Thursday’s meet started.
This weekend is the second in the row Hu is swimming at a PVS meet. Last weekend she competed at the PVS open championships, competing against the region’s best swimmers, where the only qualifier to compete was speed, and age was a meaningless statistic. There, she won two events, the 200 backstroke and the 200 medley. Despite the tougher competition, Hu was not awed by her own accomplishments.
“I kind of expected to win,” she said softly, sounding apologetic for besting fully-grown women, some twice her age.
At the age group championships, Hu is not the feel good story of a quiet youngster, bursting on to the scene. She is the premier 13-year-old girl in the region, and when she says, “I really, really hope I make it to the Olympics,” nobody bats an eye.
“She works very hard,” Hu’s coach at Curl-Burke, Marilyn Mangels, said. “She has a sense of how fast she can go and she doesn’t like to lose.”
Part of that sense of competition comes from the days that Janet and Phillip Hu were the two fastest swimmers in Mangels’ youth group, and they would race against each other. Thursday, Janet Hu said she can beat her brother at breaststroke, but Phillip, who won the boys 13-14 200-meter freestyle in 2:03.07, said that maybe happened once.
“It’s really fun when you can beat your own brother and he’s older than you,” Janet Hu said.
The irony that Hu can beat her brother – even if it was just once – in the breaststroke is that it’s her weakest event, Mangles said. Hu is entered in six events this weekend, and breaststroke, where she is seeded sixth, is the only one in which she doesn’t enter with the best time. Mangles said Hu isn’t seeded with her best time in the event, which will take place Friday. If she were she’d be in the top three.
“Knowing Janet she could very well win it,” Mangels said. “She doesn’t like to lose.”