Fox Chapel’s Sophie Shao off to fast start in quest to defend WPIAL, PIAA championships

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Saturday, January 30, 2021 | 5:09 PM


Two years ago, then-eighth grader Sophie Shao witnessed Fox Chapel freshman Zoe Skirbol make history with a WPIAL swimming championship in the 100-yard breaststroke and a state title in the 200 individual medley.

Last year, it was Shao’s turn to shine in her varsity debut as she won WPIAL gold in the 100 butterfly and paired that with a PIAA championship.

Now, Shao is off to a fast start to her sophomore season as she hopes for encore performances and at WPIALs and beyond.

“I am very happy and grateful that we are back in the pool and able to compete,” said Shao, who joined her Foxes teammates for meets with Woodland Hills (Jan. 14), Penn Hills (Jan. 21) and Hampton (Monday) and Gateway (Thursday).

Shao said the state government-imposed three-week covid shutdown from Dec. 12 to Jan. 4, which kept many swimmers and other athletes away from their chosen sport, was a challenge. But, she said, she and others were able to push through by recalling the experience of a longer stoppage — about four months — last spring when the pandemic started to take hold.

“I look forward to every single meet we have, big or small,” Shao said. “It is the highlight of my week. I am taking nothing for granted and savoring each moment.”

The WPIAL swimming committee, chairman Jamie Morton said, is expected to meet this week to, hopefully, finalize the location and the number of qualifiers for each event, among other plans, for the championship meets the week of March 1.

“I am excited and also a little anxious looking ahead because there are so many things that are uncertain,” Shao said. “But all we can do is continue to practice and swim hard and be ready for anything.

“Hopefully, we are able to take a lot (of swimmers) to WPIALs. That’s the fun part, being able to experience all of that with my teammates, especially my sister (Vivian). It’s her senior year, and I want it to be great for her.”

Shao owned the top WPIAL time in the Class AAA 100 butterfly after two weeks of competition: 56.59 seconds recorded against Woodland Hills.

“For Sophie, she trains year-round, and it’s a new year with new challenges and new goals,” Fox Chapel coach Dan Taylor said.

“She is as good as she has been and continues working hard to get better. She’s the defending champion in the 100 fly and currently the fastest in the state. That only serves to motivate her even more. It pushes other kids throughout the state to try and knock her off, and it pushes her to try and hold them off.”

Shao hopes to peak in the event by the end of the season and possibly go faster than her winning time of 54.74 at WPIALs and her school-record swim of 54.22 at states at Bucknell.

Her state-title winning time was nearly a second faster than the runner-up, then-freshman Sydney Gring from District 3’s Muhlenberg.

“There was just such a rush of adrenaline for my races (at states),” said Shao, who remembers soaking in the intense atmosphere and the large crowd at Bucknell’s Kinney Natatorium.

The state championships will not be at Bucknell this year, but instead will be held at Cumberland Valley High School in Mechanicsburg.

Along with hoping to repeat as champion in the 100 fly, she also is chasing one of the longest-standing WPIAL records in any sport.

Penn Hills standout Melanie Buddemeyer, who went on to swim at North Carolina and enjoy national and international success, has held the WPIAL Class AAA 100 fly record (54.16) since 1984. Back then, it was the overall girls record. In 1993, it became the Class AAA record to align with Penn Hills’ position in Class AAA.

Buddemeyer’s daughter, Ali Kozlina, a Seneca Valley graduate and senior on the women’s swim team at the U.S. Naval Academy, also has trained with Shao on the Fox Chapel Killer Whales club team. She has passed along updates on Shao’s pursuit of the record.

“Ali has told me how hard Sophie works, how dedicated she is to being the best and just how nice of a person she is,” Buddemeyer said. “I would like (the record) to be broken by someone who has those character traits. I am still amazed that it hasn’t been broken. When I set it, I was living in the moment, and you never think about how long it will last.”

Three-time WPIAL Class AA 100 fly champion Margaret Gruber, a Mars graduate who went on to swim at Virginia Tech, owns the overall WPIAL record in the event, 53.88 recorded in 2013. She also holds the Class AA state record (53.50).

The Class AAA state record (52.99) was established by Hershey’s Kathleen Nolan in 2009.

Shao also has her sights set on a WPIAL title in the 100 breaststroke. She placed fourth (1:05.01) in the event at WPIALs and seventh in her preliminary heat at states (1:04.68) before the championship finals were canceled.

“It was a little frustrating not being able to come back (in the 100 breast),” Shao said. “I felt I had a faster swim in me.”

Shao expects big things in the relays for Fox Chapel. She is part of the 200 medley relay team that set a school record last year. She joined sister Vivian, sophomore Talia Bugel and junior Rei Sperry in capturing a bronze medal at WPIALs in a time of 1:45.92.

She later teamed with Vivian, Bugel and graduate Grace Gackenbach to finish as the WPIAL runner-up in the 400 free relay (3:32.99).

Those two relays went on to claim ninth-place finishes at states.

The Fox Chapel girls are now 4-0 in section meets, and Shao qualifed for WPIALs on Thursday in the 200 IM (2:03.56, pool record). She also helped the girls 200 free relay (1:37.92) and 400 free relay (3:33.86) with Bugel, Sperry and Vivian Shao record pool records.

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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