Senior Ellie Heit dives into UC Davis swim commitment


Courtesy Justin Wang (@justin_wang_photo on Instagram)

Senior Ellie Heit swims butterfly at the 2022 Futures Championships in Santa Clara, CA.

Close your eyes and count to 10. Not much happened, right?

But, for senior Ellie Heit, 10 seconds made the difference between a second-to-last place ranking and a first-place finish.

One summer afternoon at the George F. Haines Santa Clara Invitational swim meet, Ellie was ready to give it her all in the 200-meter butterfly finals, notorious for being one of the hardest, if not the most difficult events in swimming.

“She does the longest and hardest events in competition,” Palo Alto Stanford Aquatics Dana Kirk Swimming (PASA DKS) head coach Dana Kirk said. “And she has realized that she can decide for meets to go however she would like them to. It’s a great power to have in your corner.”

As she emerged from the water, Ellie was not only the 200-meter butterfly final champion in her division, but also made a drop of over 10 seconds compared to her previous season’s best, an exponential improvement rarely seen in elite swimming.

From where she started, this feat was nothing she’d expected to happen.

Ellie spent her younger years in Massachusetts where she took lessons at a local Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) to learn to swim. At age eight, her family moved to the Bay Area and she joined the Los Altos–Mountain View Aquatic Club (LAMVAC), a small local competitive team.

“[Before swimming] I was also doing a couple of other sports, and then I realized, I think I like swimming more,” Ellie said. “So I pretty much just went with that.”

Just a year after she initially joined, Ellie began qualifying for small championship meets such as the Junior Olympics and Far Westerns. These meets brought together hundreds of young swimmers from nearby counties and states for a weekend, or two, of intense racing and competition.

“I remember qualifying for my first big championship,” Ellie said. “I just got out of the water, and walked over to my coach, and he was like, ‘Oh, you got this qualification’ and I was like ‘okay, cool, like I guess we’re going now’… and later, I realized, maybe I’m kinda good at this.”

But, when the COVID pandemic hit in early 2020, thousands of businesses took a heavy financial toll, including LAMVAC, where Ellie’s coach was let go.

At that, Ellie made the move to PASA DKS, a much larger and more reputable swim team with sites throughout Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Los Altos that produces dozens of swimmers annually who are recruited or walk onto impressive college swim teams.

Throughout the pandemic, Ellie continued training hard and consistently, qualifying for her first Sectional meet in 2021, which is more exclusive and requires much more difficult time standards to qualify for compared to local championship meets, marking a major milestone and promotion, of sorts, from local to national-level competitions.

Also, unlike many other sports such as soccer or basketball, swimming doesn’t grant anyone a direct win or loss. Swimmers spend weeks or months training for just a couple of short races, most no longer than a couple of minutes, and their results can only be judged by their own improvement.

“Swimming is a lot about delayed gratification; It’s like you’ve trained for like a year to drop half a second,” Ellie said. “So it’s definitely been a struggle to maintain that motivation even when you’re super broken down and tired.”

As Ellie powered through these challenges, her athletic success was still undeniable.

Starting her senior year, Ellie began looking at colleges, unsure about exactly what she wanted, whether it was to swim at a Division I or Division III level.

In the end, she settled on the University of California, Davis, a large public school located just west of Sacramento, with a well-developed biology program as well as a strong swim team and notable coaches and is ranked in the top half of women’s DI swimming teams.

Her decision received mountains of support from both her coaches and teammates, as did her swimming career in general.

“We’d bounced off each other while looking at colleges [to commit to], and I’m happy that she’s committed to Davis, it’s a great match for her,” Ellie’s teammate and LAHS senior Erin Kau said. “She puts a lot of tears and sweat into her work, she deserves it.”

“One of our [team’s] quotes is ‘Embrace the Suck,’” Kirk said. “Ellie is really good at putting her head down and getting the yardage done, even when training just sucks. Davis was a great choice and I’m really proud of her for making the right choice for her goals and her future.”

And, Ellie returned their hard work and support with her own, too.

“She definitely pushes the people around her to be better in practice,” Ellie’s brother, sophomore Henry Heit said. “Once, when I was little, I was crying a lot one day [after practice], and she was just like, ‘toughen up.’ We’re really each other’s biggest motivators.”

In the end, to Ellie, community matters most.

“I definitely [like to win],” Ellie said. “But, really, you can’t win without loving the community behind you, too. It’s a balance of both that makes me love swimming.”