Seminole High School swimming phenom takes on the Olympic Trials
The first time Seminole High School swim coach Tony Ackerson recalls watching Stephanie Akakabota at the school’s Dale Aquatic Center, she was trying out for the girls’ water polo team, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. He has referred to Stephanie’s swimming ability at the time as being – in his words – “terrible,” and these days he can admit, “I was being generous.”
It was January 2018, during Stephanie’s freshman year, and she had just completed a mediocre season on the Seminoles’ junior varsity swimming team.
“About 20 young ladies tried out for the water polo team, and she was in a group of maybe five girls who were either very slow or couldn’t catch or couldn’t throw,” says Tony, Seminole’s coach since 1987. “I took those girls aside and told them, ‘I know you’re all really nice and you’re trying your best, but you all have eons to go, as far as your skills.’”
He plainly told the girls that if they signed up for the team, he was never going to put them in a game. They were never going to play water polo for Seminole High School. Period. It was that bad.
Despite that grim prognosis, the ever-determined and optimistic Stephanie was not deterred. She asked Tony if he thought she should concentrate on swimming or water polo. He told her, “Swim!” and then she asked him what exactly she needed to do to get better.
“Sure, I was positive and smiling,” Tony says, “but I was thinking, this is a big waste of time. But, I was going to answer her. Obviously, she’s delightful, so I told her all the things she needed to do... but no one ever does them.”
Getting to Work
In a nutshell, Tony’s advice was for Stephanie to start showing up for swim club practice three mornings a week at 5:30 (she was there at 5:20 the next day), weight train three days a week, outwork every single person on the team, become a student of the sport, and trust everything he tells her to do.
“She did all of those things,” Tony recounts, still in amazement more than three years later. “I get chills recalling it, because of how it’s played out. By the end of the year, she went from being a very, very mediocre J.V. swimmer to being a state qualifier. And that just does not happen. I’ve worked with more than a thousand kids at Seminole High School, but I’ve never worked with anyone like Stephanie.”
Through hard work and sheer determination, Stephanie developed into one of the nation’s best swimmers in the 50-yard and 50-meter freestyle. Less than a year later, as a sophomore, she dropped her time in the 50-yard free from 29 to 23 seconds and qualified for the state meet. By her junior year, Stephanie earned All-America honors and committed to swim for one of the nation’s top NCAA programs, the University of California, Berkeley.
In March, Stephanie’s 50-meter free time of 25.74 seconds at a local long-course meet earned her a spot in the 2021 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, on June 7.
The Olympic Trials was Stephanie’s biggest-ever meet, and she describes the experience as incredible.
“I swam pretty close to my best time, and I’m really happy with it,” she says. “I spent a lot of the meet reflecting on my journey and how it has just begun. I’m so excited for college and the future!”
For the Record(s)
Stephanie, who graduated in May, holds four school records at Seminole High (50-yard freestyle, 200-yard medley relay, 200-yard freestyle relay, and 400-yard freestyle relay). She broke a 23-year-old record for the 50 free three times during her high-school career.
“When I started swimming in ninth and 10th grade, I just thought I was doing this for fun,” says Stephanie, 17, who is also an accomplished pianist who has played at Carnegie Hall three times. She’s an outstanding student, too, who scored 1570 (out of 1600) on the SAT and has a weighted 4.7 grade-point average in Seminole’s International Baccalaureate program. “I just thought maybe I’d make the varsity team. I didn’t think I would swim in college, and I never had Olympic Trials in my eyesight.”
Initially, Stephanie’s big goal was to qualify for the Florida high-school State Championship meet. Once she achieved that as a sophomore, Stephanie began reaching for greater heights.
“Stephanie simply made up her mind – she wanted to be as good as she could be,” Tony says, “and each year she would refocus on her goals because I think she got way better than she could have imagined.”
Anything She Can Do, She Can Do Better
Stephanie has always been a high achiever. Born in Maryland to “very academically motivated” parents, she says, Stephanie began taking piano and swimming lessons at age five when her family moved to Lake Mary. Her mother Bolanle, a physician, and father Tony, a computer engineer, always encouraged young Stephanie to take advantage of the many opportunities in America they didn’t have growing up in Nigeria.
“My parents never got to experience playing sports or playing an instrument,” Stephanie says, “because they just really wanted to get to the highest academic level so they could move to America. They didn’t even know extracurricular activities were a thing. So they wanted me to have the best of both worlds.”
Stephanie immediately fell in love with playing the piano, but it took her a little longer to feel the same passion for swimming. In addition to swimming, her parents also got Stephanie involved in baseball, basketball, soccer, and track.
“I tried a bunch of different sports, but I always came back to swimming,” she says. “Still, I wasn’t really serious about it throughout elementary school and middle school, up to ninth grade. I would just come to practice sporadically. Because I had so many interests that I wanted to pursue, I never really focused on it. I was mostly focusing on school and academics.”
As with her piano playing and academics, Stephanie eventually became laser-focused on excelling at swimming. Always structured and organized, Stephanie thrived under the Seminole Aquatics team system and grew to love those early-morning practices.
“I was very excited,” Stephanie says, “because I like something that is challenging, like a really big hurdle to get over.”
Back to the Books
After the Olympic Trials, Stephanie will begin working on her next big challenge: tackling her athletic and academic career at UC Berkeley. She plans to major in mechanical engineering with the career aspiration of being a robotic engineer. Stephanie is also interested in political science. In her dream scenario, she will first become a professional swimmer and then have a career making medical prosthetics and robotic limbs.
As for the next few months, Stephanie says, “I really just want to have a fun summer.”
And then Tony clarifies, “Stephanie’s idea of fun is there’s no pressure to win a State Championship. Her idea of fun is she’s going to be working every day. The fun is just getting ready for college and swimming different events and working on different strokes. And when Stephanie gets to college, she’ll be great there. She’ll be great at anything she wants to do. Literally. Anything.”
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