Right around the time Tony Ponomarev moved to Olympia from Pullman two years ago, swimming went from one of the things he did to something to build his days around.
“I had a really big jump in my times when I was 13,” he said.
Now a freshman at Olympia High School, the 6-foot-2 Ponomarev is an NCAA Division I prospect already and capable of picking which events he wants to swim during the postseason, Bears coach Mel Smith says.
Ponomarev has already posted two official Class 4A state qualifying times — 48.55 seconds in the 100-yard freestyle and a 1:44.89 in the 200 free.
A 53.87 he recorded in the 100 butterfly beats the state standard, but was timed by hand, and won’t secure a spot at the 4A meet, though Ponomarev is nationally ranked in the event competing for Evergreen Swim Club.
“Those are my three favorite events,” he said. “I like them because they’re in between — not a complete sprint or long distance.”
Ponomarev’s potential extends beyond the freestyle and butterfly. He’s competed in every stroke and in the 200 individual medley.
With four regular-season meets to go, Smith isn’t completely sure what Ponomarev will compete in during postseason.
“He’s only been in two meets so far. We’ll put him in a variety of events and check the times from around the state and see where he’ll have the best chance,” Smith said.
Ponomarev’s 200 free qualifying time would have put him in the finals at state last season. His other marks are close.
Four other Bear standouts will shape the entries Smith puts together for state, including senior Jordan Kamimura in the 50 free, 100 breaststroke and 200 IM, junior Andrew Liu in the 100 backstroke and 200 IM, junior Adam Skjervold in the 50 free and 100 fly, and senior Brett Wilson, a Xavier commit, in the backstroke and 500 free.
All will participate in relays for Olympia.
Born in the United States to parents who immigrated from Russia in 2000, Ponomarev grew up in Pullman and swam for the Gold Medal Swim Club starting more than five years ago. Smith immediately took note of him shortly after he arrived in Olympia.
“We knew about him right away,” Smith said. “We saw him at the pool when he was younger.”
Swimming, though, is one of those sports where promising athletes sometimes skip participating for their high school teams to focus on more intense club competition.
“We talked to his parents on Eighth Grade Night (an Olympia event where middle school students learn about high school activities). They were still trying to decide if Tony would swim in high school,” Smith said.
The answer was yes, because Ponomarev was seeking an atmosphere that doesn’t routinely exist in age group swimming.
“I felt like club doesn’t have as much of a team environment as high school,” he said.
Smith said Ponomarev quickly adjusted to being a resource for teammates as well as simply an athlete searching our personal bests.
“He’s willing to share his talents and skills with boys who don’t have as much,” he said. “For example, if he sees a kid having trouble with his flip turns, he’ll walk over and try to help him get better.”
“That’s one of the most important things about being on a team,” Ponomarev said. “A lot of people in high school are new to swimming. Sometimes they’ll come to me for help with technique on a stroke.”
Ponomarev believes he’ll need to further refine his own technique during high school to reach his goal of a Division I scholarship. Smith is sure he’ll get there.
“We’ve had freshmen as good as Tony before,” he said. “But, he’s dedicated himself to the sport. He works hard. That’s where the payoff will come from.”