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Veteran and ‘newbie’ Aggie swimmers ready for NCAAs

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UCD swimmers Liliana Alvarez, left, and Hilvy Cheung will represent the Aggies at the NCAA Championships beginning Thursday in Minneapolis. Alvarez, a senior, competes in the breaststroke, while freshman Cheung swims the butterfly. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

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From page B1 | March 20, 2014 |

One is a four-time qualifier for the NCAA Division I swimming and diving championships.

The other is a self-described “newbie” who will make her first appearance in the national spotlight.

Together, UC Davis senior Liliana Alvarez and freshman Hilvy Cheung are ready to take on the United States’ best this weekend at the University of Minnesota.

Alvarez (by way of San Anselmo) has qualified in the 100- and 200-yard breaststroke events while Cheung will compete in the 100 and 200 butterfly.

Alvarez’s 1:00.49 in the 100 represents the 33rd-fastest time in the field.

Cheung has the nation’s 25th-best 200 fly effort (1:56.14) and her 53.19 in the 100 ranks 47th. Both are school records.

Alvarez missed last season’s finals with an injury, which makes her collegiate swan song even more special.

“It gives me more motivation to do well,” Alvarez told The Enterprise. “I’m more prepared mentally and physically … (I) feel better in the water than I have in past years. I’m just real excited to do well.”

Parents Alice and Domingo Alvarez will be in Minnesota to watch their daughter swim Friday (100) and Saturday (200). Cheung and Alvarez also will be joined by UCD head coach Barbara Jahn and assistants Pete Motekaitis and Rick Henderson.

A Mid-Major All-American, Alvarez loves the idea of having company throughout training and now at the championships.

Once the Aggies wrapped up their third Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title last month, the two UCD swimmers have been hard at work readying for the big stage.

“Being a newbie, I didn’t know anything,” Cheung said with a laugh. “Lili’s like a mentor — and an idol in another kind of way.”

Alvarez says the postseason partnership is a two-way street …

“If anything, we’re supporting each other. I’m telling her what it’s like so she knows what to expect. I know as a freshman I didn’t know what to expect … but she’s supporting me, in the same way. It’s nice to have another swimmer there,” Alvarez explained.

“We’re not alone in the pool when we’re training. I think it’s going to make a really big difference having someone else there. I won’t be the only swimmer from UC Davis.”

Like Alvarez did before her, Cheung has entered some lofty company in her first collegiate season. Coming out of American High in Fremont, did the animal science major see her NCAA bid coming?

“Not at all,” she admitted. “Practices (at UCD) are a lot harder than I was used to, so I’ve been improving throughout the fall. At the beginning of the season I had no idea I could do it.”

But as the weeks progressed, her times got better and better. Even when she was competing when tired, her swim times were her better than her best high school efforts.

“At that point it clicked and I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be great!’ At conference, that’s when everything came together and I dropped a lot of time there.”

Longtime Aggie coach Jahn loves what the future holds for conference Freshman of the Year Cheung, at the same time lamenting how to replace the All-MPSF Alvarez.

“Pete did a great job training (Cheung),” explained Jahn, noting no one expected her break-out season so early in her career. “We knew she had that famous word ‘potential.’

“She’s just so eager to learn and willing to work hard at it. She’s a smart kid. Things just clicked. She could be another Lili in the next four years, being counted on year after year, making it to the nationals.”

Meanwhile, Aggie Nation will be sad to see Alvarez go …

“She is irreplaceable,” Jahn said of her senior torpedo. “If we could clone her, we would.

“She came in as a good swimmer — not great — and has worked so hard and gotten better ever year. Reliable. You can count on her finishing races with a lot of style.

“It’s going to be a big hole to fill, so I’m not sure what we’re going to be doing (after she’s gone).

“A good kid, too. I like her parents. She just a good Aggie. Stellar. Good student, good ambassador.”

An NCAA qualifier in four seasons is impossible to beat, so Alvarez was asked if she had advice for how younger swimmers could hit the ground running, er, swimming in college:

“Have a great work ethic and truly love to swim and they’ll have fun,” she said. “It’s serious to push yourself every day and do what the coaches tell you, but also have a lot of fun while you’re doing it.

“Getting along with my teammates and coaches is another thing that’s helped. I’ve really enjoyed it and it has made it all so much easier. Working hard and keeping a good mindset helps the transition.”

Notes: Alvarez will swim into some choppy waters as the two fastest 200-yard breaststrokers in NCAA history — Emma Reaney (Notre Dame) and Breeja Larson (Texas A&M) face off. Reaney’s best time is 2:04.34. Larson has gone 2:04.92. Alvarez comes in at 2:12.41. … Alvarez is the MPSF’s only four-time 100-yard breaststroke champ. … The busy Alvarez has a double major: international relations and Spanish. … What was the best advice Cheung got from veteran Alvarez? “Just have fun.”

— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected] or 530-320-4456.

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