There were moments in the past when Firestone High School senior Mark Belanger did not have the dedication or desire to put in the work to become a successful swimmer.
He enjoyed swimming, but practicing several hours each day just didn’t appeal to him.
“Mark is a funny story, and something that a lot of the kids can relate to,” Firestone swim coach Cindy Virdo said. “He was the kid in eighth grade that would get to the pool and ‘Oh, I forgot my suit’ or ‘I forgot my goggles’ and he would go home. He would literally turn around and go home.”
Those times as a youth are now a distant memory for Belanger, who will be seeking Division I state championships in the 200-yard freestyle and 100 freestyle Friday and Saturday at C.T. Branin Natatorium in Canton.
Belanger, 18, has the top 200 freestyle time of the 24 state qualifiers at 1 minute, 39.93 seconds. He posted that last week for a record at the district meet at Cleveland State University’s Busbey Natatorium. His 100 freestyle district time of 45.61 seconds is ranked second in the state.
He laughs when talking about his swimming career as a youth.
“I have known how to swim since I was 4, but I really didn’t consistently come to practice until freshman year,” Belanger said. “I have really dedicated myself to the sport since freshman year.
“In middle school I would come to practice like once a week. Coaches always said to me, ‘You know, if you actually came to practice every day you would be really good,’ but I didn’t really believe them. I started to swim more over the summer between eighth-grade year and freshman year. Cindy really got me going and was pretty persistent that I was at practice regularly. It was really a combination of me seeing my progress over that summer and Cindy cracking down on me.”
Belanger, who is 6-foot-3, holds three school records at tradition-laden Firestone — the 50 freestyle (20.90), the 100 freestyle (45.03) and the 100 butterfly (49.54). He was state runner-up last year in the 100 freestyle and placed sixth in the 100 backstroke.
“When he was looking at schools coming into his freshman year, he really wanted to swim,” Virdo said. “I was really thrilled that he decided to come to Firestone, but I was like you know what, we gotta figure this out because it is not going to be I am coming every other day. You have to come to every practice. With the group of seniors that were here at that time, he really made the commitment and he stepped up to a lot of people’s surprise, including mine.”
Belanger, a Bath resident, has signed with Ohio State University to continue his academic and swimming careers on athletic scholarship after strongly considering the Naval Academy. He has a 4.1659 cumulative grade-point average and takes International Baccalaureate classes at Firestone.
Belanger has sectional and district championships in multiple events. The only title missing is a state championship.
“I always think about that,” Belanger said. “That is basically what is going on in my head every day in practice. I want to win state, and not just win, I want to win by a lot.”
Belanger said he is considering pursuing a career in physical therapy or personal training. He played golf, soccer and tennis as a kid before swimming became his primary focus.
“The kid has always been tall and lanky,” Virdo said. “We call him the Kenyan because during the summertime he has his tan on and when we’re running, he looks like a Kenyan with his skinny legs going. He can haul when he runs. We knew if he committed that he would do something. We told him that if you put the effort in, it would be there in the end as long as you continually work hard. We knew where his weaknesses were and it is one of those things now that is a strength. His kicking and what he does off the walls are huge strengths for him.
“He has been a work in progress. Mark has definitely improved over the past four years and I think he will continue to improve at Ohio State.”
Michael Beaven can be reached at 330-996-3829 or firstname.lastname@example.org.