TAMPA — Ally Donahue embraces pain, work and grit.
She wakes up at 4:30 a.m. and looks forward to lifting weights for two hours. She enjoys swimming thousands of yards a day. She likes “the feeling of being sore.”
She finds it all “interesting.”
Prom? Partying? Drama?
“I have no interest in any of those things,” Donahue said. “I don’t fault anybody for wanting to do those things, but it’s just not for me.”
These are some of the reasons the junior chose to graduate a year early from Plant High and enter the University of Florida this fall.
There are bigger reasons: 1. Donahue, turning 18 in the fall, is so talented in the breaststroke that the Gators want her to compete for them as soon as possible. 2. The intense training at Florida will set her up for a shot at making the 2016 Olympic team for Trinidad (her mother, Karen, is from Trinidad and she has dual citizenship). 3. UF is a perfect fit as a great program not far from home.
And she said she wants to “find the best in me.”
“I wanted to surround myself with people who have the same mentality,” she said. “I love (Plant swim coach Gil Gonzalez) and swimming for Plant, but I didn’t feel I could get the training I needed at Plant to take it to the (collegiate and Olympic) level.”
Though Donahue has always lived a focused and calculated existence, her decision was not drawn up through years of thought. It happened in a whirlwind in December, when Donahue won two events at the Class 4A state swim meet (the 50 free and the 100 breaststroke) and followed that a few weeks later with a frustrating outing at junior nationals.
“(The struggles at junior nationals) got me thinking about what I could do differently to improve, because the timing of the (state meet and the junior national meet) make it difficult to do well at both,” Donahue said. “Then I thought of (Plant linebacker) Andrew Beck, who graduated early and went to Texas (in the spring) to start working out early with their football team. I started investigating about what I had to do to graduate early.”
It turned out Donahue already had accrued most of the credits needed to attend college, and through online classes (which she used as a sophomore and junior while increasing her training), she could easily earn the remaining required credits.
She did, and a few months ago it became official: Donahue would skip her senior year at Plant and head to college a year early.
Regrets? No. Doubts? Not really.
Yes, she has heard stories of how Florida’s ultra-demanding swimming program has run off several quality swimmers. And yes, she has listened to other swimmers say they won’t go to Florida because they “fear the training.”
But she has also seen the tremendous success from Florida alumni, most recently Ryan Lochte, who won 11 Olympic medals (five gold, three silver, three bronze).
“I don’t fear the training,” Donahue said. “I actually look forward to it.”
Gonzalez said he wouldn’t say this about a lot of athletes making an early jump to college, but he would say it about Donahue: “She can do it. I’m confident she will do it.”
Mom and dad — Brian and Karen — are also behind their daughter’s decision, though they want to make something perfectly clear: “Having Ally graduate a year early was nowhere on our radar,” Brian said. “Ally is the one who made this decision. She wants this. After talking about it, and talking to the (Florida) coaches and looking deep into it, we decided that it was a good decision. I know a lot of people out there don’t think this is a good idea, but we feel very good about it. We love her, and we want what is best for her, and I truly believe this is best. We’re all excited about it.”
It doesn’t hurt that Brian swam for Princeton, and Karen swam for Brown and competed for Trinidad in the 1988 Olympics.
“I think our family has a lot of perspective to lean on,” Donahue said. “We understand this.”
This summer will kick into high gear for Donahue the first week in July with a meet in Barbados while she competes for Trinidad. In mid-August, Donahue will represent Trinidad in the second youth Olympics (ages 14-18) in Nanjing, China.
After that, it’s off to college.
“It’s a lot to do,” Donahue said. “But it’s the way I like it. I’m getting to experience things and see places that a lot of people never will.’’