Standing 5-foot-1 and weighing a mere 97 pounds, Danielle Schulkin is hardly your prototypical top-flight swimmer, but that hasn’t kept the 17-year-old, Harvard-bound butterfly specialist out of the pool or away from competition.
This weekend, Schulkin will travel to Washington state to compete at the AT&T Short Course National Championships at the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center – a showcase that highlights her dedication and an effort to overcome natural odds.
A senior at Walt Whitman and a member of Sea Devil Swimming, Schulkin is accustomed to standing out.
“I’m always a foot shorter than anyone on deck,” Schulkin said. “I get incredulous looks a lot. But I don’t mind it. People tend to underestimate me, and I think that gives me an advantage and just pushes me to go faster.”
The height disparity washes away when Schulkin hits the water, where through years of training she has figured out how to maximize her technique. Sea Devils assistant coach Rory Lewis – who, along with his brother Mark has coached Schulkin for 10 years – has continually emphasized form over power to get the most out of Schulkin’s strokes.
“She was always challenged vertically, so when it came time to compete, her technique was something that she needed to concentrate on,” Lewis said. “Other girls her age may have had an early growth spurt, and because of their physical stature they may be performing at a higher level than her, but not because of a greater work ethic.”
The focus on technique allowed Schulkin to bridge the gap between her and more physically developed competition. Now her fly stroke, which she describes as “more of a smooth glide than barreling down the water,” has her squarely in the mix with some of the top swimmers in the country.
“Her physique allows her to ride higher on the water than someone with a larger vessel, so to speak,” Lewis said. “So we’ve worked on accentuating that and allowing her to concentrate on stroke length with her upper body development. But we also wanted to keep the stroke flowing at the surface so it wasn’t concentrated solely on power.”
Schulkin credits the Sea Devils’ slow development program for cultivating her passion for the pool without pushing her too far as a young athlete – a topic she used as the basis for an essay on her Harvard application.
“I really haven’t lost my love of swimming,” said Schulkin, who didn’t start training seriously until three years ago. “A lot of my competitors have trained so hard for so long and do so much yardage that they mumble about going to practice and don’t seem to enjoy it as much. But I just love that feeling of racing and being in the water.”
A year after making her debut at the Short Course Senior Nationals, Schulkin enters Friday’s 100-meter butterfly preliminaries seeded 44th – her highest seeding at any national competition to date. She’s also slated to compete in the 200-meter fly on Saturday. The top 24 swimmers qualify for the finals, which are held later each day.
“The atmosphere is more intense than any other meet I’ve been to,” Schulkin said. “It’s a very different arena where you could be racing the gold medalist in the 100 fly or the 100 breast. It’s tough competition, but I’m excited to swim against top level swimmers.”