By Bill Sterling —
Athletes have been forced to put their dreams on hold with the shutdown of sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but not many athletes have dreams bigger than Virginia Beach’s Samantha Tadder, a 17-year-old Olympic swimming hopeful whose mother, Dottie, was raised on the Eastern Shore near Craddockville and is a 1987 graduate of Northampton High School.
Tadder, who is called just that or “Sam” by most of her teammates, is the granddaughter of Sam Taylor, of Craddockville. Tadder’s middle name is Georgia, taken from her grandmother, Georgie Mae Taylor, who died of cancer when Tadder was only 5. Her grandfather is remarried to the former Marji McCaleb, and Tadder has several first cousins living on the Shore.
A phone conversation with Tadder one night recently had to be cut short so she could accept a call from a swim coach at the University of Texas, one of three colleges remaining on a list she is considering pursuing for a collegiate swim career. The other two are Stanford and Kentucky.
Last April, Tadder achieved a near lifetime dream by qualifying for the USA Olympic Swimming Team Trials that were scheduled to be held in Omaha, Neb., this June. She had surpassed the qualifying mark by more than a second in the 400-meter individual medley with a time of 4 minutes, 50.33 seconds in St. Petersburg, Fla., at the TYR International Junior Cup.
Despite having won eight state swimming titles at First Colonial High School with one more year remaining in high school, Tadder said qualifying for the Olympic Trials is her biggest swimming accomplishment. “I’ve been swimming competitively since I was 5 years old, and it was always a dream; then it became a goal I wanted to hit. It was a great feeling when it happened.”
As of earlier this week, the Olympic Trials had not been postponed, but Tadder realized the inevitability of that happening. “Now the Olympics have been postponed, I imagine the trials will be postponed as well. It’s really disappointing, but with everything going on now, it’s certainly understandable.”
Only 0.5 percent of swimmers in the country ever qualify for the trials, and the cuts, based on specific swim times, include all college swimmers. But Tadder is quick to point out that her accomplishment is a team effort. “I owe so much to my parents. They’ve only missed one meet I’ve competed in, and that includes trips to California. Until I got my driver’s license, they would take me to all my practices, and that often meant leaving the house at 4:30 a.m.”
Tadder said she practices a minimum of three hours a day and often four and a half hours year-round, with Sunday being a rest day. She prefers practicing in outside pools even in cooler weather. “Last week, I was swimming in an outdoor pool with the temperature about 30 degrees. Indoor pools have so much chlorine, and I like seeing the sky and enjoying the sunrise and sunset. The water is heated, so that helps.”
Tadder said her choice of colleges will probably hinge on being able to train in outdoor pools. Carrying a 3.94 grade-point average at First Colonial, she hopes to major in business with a goal of owning a company one day. Tadder said she has received several full scholarship offers to swim in college, but the powerhouse programs that attract the top swimmers usually divide their scholarship funds among the incoming freshmen.
Tadder wants to choose a college that will help her become a nationally elite swimmer capable of earning a spot on the 2024 Olympic team, when she will be 21. Realistically speaking, Tadder said that her qualifying time in the 400-meter IM (which combines all four strokes: breast, butterfly, back, and freestyle) is “in the middle of the pack” among U.S. qualifiers and that one of the goals in attending the Olympic Trials is to make the Junior National Team and qualify for a prestigious swim meet in Hawaii. Only the top two swimmers in each event qualify for the Olympics. Tadder added that she certainly would be giving her best to make the next Olympics, but the experience of being at the trials will help her swimming career.
The Tadder household, located in the Little Neck section of Virginia Beach, Va., is a beehive of activity. Tadder’s younger sister, Shannon, 15, plays a multitude of sports, including soccer, tennis, and swimming. Her father, Mark, an Ohio native, works for the Department of Defense, while her mother is a family and urgent care nurse practitioner. On Sundays, the family attends nearby Lynnhaven United Methodist Church.
Tadder said she tried a couple of other sports when she was younger, but found swimming appealed to her most. When she became serious about swimming at a young age, Tadder essentially revolved her life around swimming and school with support from her family. “All my best friends are my swimming teammates. I don’t feel like I miss anything socially because I like getting together with my teammates to relax and have fun.”
For the past eight years Tadder has been a member of Tide Swimming, an amateur club that trains top swimmers. The team is coached by Jack Roach, who has had a distinguished career in coaching and worked with Michael Phelps, and by Richard Hunter, who has worked with several swimmers who have attended the Olympic Trials. Tadder said the two coaches have helped her tremendously with both technique and the mental aspect of swimming competitively.
As a sophomore in high school, Tadder won Class 6 state titles in the 200 IM and the 500-meter freestyle. Her team lost the state title by only 4 points, despite dominating the top spot of the podium, but lacked the depth to match larger schools. Then this past February, Tadder won a state title in the 500-meter freestyle in 4:44.17 and contributed to wins in both the 200 freestyle relay and 400 freestyle relay to help lead First Colonial to a Class 5 girls state swimming team title.
With the coronavirus health threat closing schools for the remainder of the academic year, Tadder finds herself feeling sorry for the seniors who will miss out on spring sports, end-of-year activities, and graduation. “I am thankful we had just completed the swim season when this situation first started shutting things down,” she said.
Unlike many competitive swimmers whose usual facilities aren’t open to them for training, Tadder is fortunate to have a neighbor who was once an Olympic Trial qualifier who lets Tadder and a few others train in her 25-meter pool. Tadder said she will continue to train and await word on when the Olympic Trials will be held.
Swimming in competitions across the country has allowed Tadder to meet some of the top swimmers, including one she says she admires most, Olympian champion Katie Ledecky. “It’s really been cool to meet her,” said Tadder.
Tadder’s mother, Dottie, said it was blessing when her daughter got her driver’s license and was able to drive herself to practice. “Sam has been very dedicated and is very responsible,” said Dottie Tadder. “Her father was more the athlete. At Northampton, I was a cheerleader and played some softball.”
Dottie added that her daughter has remained humble despite her noteworthy accomplishments. “Sometimes when I am talking about her swimming, she will say, ‘No one wants to hear about that.’ She would just as soon I not mention anything about swimming, but we are very proud of what she has accomplished. She has worked very hard and made some sacrifices to get this opportunity.”