Feb. 21, 2012
The following article is part of a series covering the 2012 Patriot League Swimming and Diving Championships. The content was produced by journalism students from the University of Maryland.
By Gloria Johnston
Annapolis, Md. - When you lose a bet to Toni Paruso's boyfriend, you lose your shirt. Thursday night, six freshmen Navy midshipmen proudly spelled her name out on their chests in yellow paint and chanted "Paruso! Paruso!" loudly from the observation deck. And they were not the only ones shouting.
Paruso and the rest of the Navy swimming and diving team were a formidable force at the three-day Patriot League Swimming and Diving Championship that started Thursday at the U.S. Naval Academy.
During the women's 100-yard butterfly preliminaries Friday morning, Paruso swam a record-breaking time. Around six hours later that afternoon, she helped her 200-yard medley relay team win the finals, swimming the fastest third leg at 24.28 seconds.
So when the 100-yard butterfly finals began Friday evening, everyone was watching her.
The pool air, pungent with the smell of chlorine, was intense as the women prepared to enter the pool. The crowd, filled with families and fellow teammates from all the Patriot League schools, roared, creating a booming echo throughout the natatorium.
When Paruso stole the finals competition by a massive lead of 1.61 seconds, everybody cheered.
She forged a lead from her first flip-turn and well into the final stretch, and excited observers throughout the Natatorium clasped the railings in anticipation as they watched Paruso claim the championship at 53.92 seconds, 1.61 seconds before Navy's Rheanna Vaughn came in at 55.53 seconds to claim second place.
Her record-breaking time of 53.58 seconds during the preliminaries seven hours earlier broke both the Patriot League and the meet record in the women's 100-yard butterfly, making her a strong favorite and top qualifier for Friday night's final. Her preliminaries time was .34 seconds faster than her finals time.
"I've always been a prelim swimmer," Paruso said. "I don't want to say I don't perform well under pressure, but there's just so much more of it in the finals."
Paruso, a junior at the U.S. Naval Academy and originally from Savannah, Ga., chose to swim for the Navy because she wanted to go to a school where she was challenged in arenas other than the swimming pool.
Excelling both in and out of the water, Paruso was named to her school's Commandant's list for the 2011 spring semester. Coming into this year's competition, she was already a decorated collegiate swimming veteran, winning First-Team All-Patriot League honors both last year and in 2010.
Friday's record-breaking swim meant many things for Paruso, who, although humbled by her recent achievements, has big dreams.
"I was just talking to my mom and I realized there were moments when I had looked up on that score board and I never thought I would come this far." Paruso said. "Faith goes a long way."
Paruso said her dreams include winning at the NCAA championships and making it to the Olympic trials.
"Now it's all a little bit more of a reality and this may be the boost of motivation I need to train harder," Paruso said.
What about Paruso's shirtless enthusiastic fans?
"Around here if you're an upperclassmen, the freshmen pretty much have to do whatever you say. They lost a bet to my boyfriend so..." Paruso explained with a laugh. "We have an awesome fan base and it's an honor to swim for Navy and my team."