Sophomore sensation: Palmer leads the way for Cherokee girls swimming

Palmer could be a contender for a state title in March after placing in the top five in two events at states as a freshman in 2019

Cherokee sophomore Lydia Palmer emerged as one of South Jersey’s top swimmers during her freshman year in 2019. Palmer placed in the top five in two events at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions and helped the Chiefs to an 8-5 season.

Few freshman swimmers find themselves in the position Cherokee’s Lydia Palmer was in at the 2019 NJSIAA Meet of Champions.

Having qualified for the finals of the 100-yard breaststroke in her first year of high school, Palmer was in a duel with Cherry Hill East standout and South Jersey Sports Weekly’s 2019 Girls Swimmer of the Year Grace Yoon for first place and the title of breaststroke state champion.

“I remember coming around the third turn and seeing her,” Palmer said. “We always raced at practice and meets, so it was nice racing her.”

In the final 50 yards, Palmer gained a bit of ground on Yoon as the two approached the wall. Yoon would end up finishing ahead of Palmer by just 14 hundredths of a second to win the race.

Palmer may have come up just short of a victory, but her ability to swim at a high level as a freshman was eye opening. Palmer not only finished second in the breaststroke at states, but she also placed fifth in the 200-yard individual medley to announce her arrival as one of South Jersey’s best. What’s even crazier is Palmer may not be close to reaching her potential.

“I think she is someone that will use that to help fuel her for years to come,” head Coach Chelsea Latini said of Palmer’s performance at states. “Placing that high as a freshman, I think she has so much more room for growth as a swimmer. She’s going to do a lot of great things over the next three years.”

A swimmer since the age of 3, Palmer has been involved in competitive swimming nearly her entire life. She began swimming at Jersey Wahoos and competed at the club until switching over to Greater Philadelphia Aquatic Club last summer.

Latini described Palmer as a versatile swimmer who can perform at a high level in any event. But Palmer’s specialty is the breaststroke, an event in which she said she’s always been strong. Last summer, Palmer competed in the Speedo Junior National Championships in the breaststroke, finishing in 28th place in the 100-meter race.

Her speed in the breaststroke has also made Palmer a top swimmer in the individual medley. Backstroke is the part of the individual medley Palmer has needed to work on the most in recent years.

“I’ve practiced it a lot and I worked on my underwater work and my tempo,” she said about her backstroke.

Lydia Palmer pushes ahead for Cherokee in the 200-yard individual medley during a Dec. 19 meet against Eastern. Palmer was one of the best in the state in the individual medley as a freshman, finishing in fifth place at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions.

Palmer has improved her versatility even more since joining GPAC, competing in longer freestyle distance events in addition to her usual breaststroke and IM events. In a recent club meet in Pittsburgh, Palmer took first place in the 1,650-yard freestyle in addition to winning both the 100-yard and 200-yard breaststroke events.

“She is just a very versatile swimmer where we can put her wherever we need her,” Latini said. “Even though she does focus on the 200 IM and the 100 breast, she’s someone who can also swim really well in the 500 free, 200 free, 50, 100. She’s beneficial no matter where we put her.”

Palmer doesn’t get overly focused on her times when competing at Cherokee, saying she’s mostly focused on placing first in her events and earning the Chiefs points. Latini described Palmer as a team player and believes her impact on the team goes well beyond how she performs in the pool.

“It’s so fun for (the swimmers) to see the different levels of experience that our team has, especially for the new girls that never swam before,” Latini said. “They look at the club swimmers, especially Lydia, and say, ‘Wow, this is what hard work looks like. This is what determination looks like.’

“We have a history of having a lot of good club swimmers,” Latini added. “We graduated a bunch a few years ago. I think Lydia has been maybe one of the strongest competitors we’ve had come through in the last few years.”

After a successful freshman year, Palmer hopes to do even better at the 2020 NJSIAA Meet of Champions. She wants to improve on her fifth-place finish in the individual medley from last year and hopes to again contend for the breaststroke state title.

“This year, I want to try and go faster than I did last year,” Palmer said. “Last year, I would (swim) around the same times for each of the meets.

“This year, I want faster times.”