High School: Hialeah Gardens

College: Florida International University

Maria Lopez is ready to start the next chapter of her young life.

The South Florida Aquatic Club swimmer will celebrate an outstanding year with family and friends at the club’s annual banquet this weekend.

After that, the USA Swimming Scholastic All-American will continue her swimming career at Florida International University in August.

“I liked everything about the school,” Lopez said. “One of the most important things was my major which is finance. FIU has one of the top business schools in the country and that was really important to me.”

The fast-rising NCAA Division I swim program was another plus.

FIU, coached by Randy Horner, is coming off its finest season in the program’s history. FIU finished second in its debut at the Conference USA Championships. Making its’ third NCAA Championship appearance, FIU scored for the first time and finished 47th.

“The group of girls were so friendly and nice and really welcoming,” Lopez said. “What more could you ask?

“I was okay with going away to college but I am glad I found this school,” said Lopez, who will be living on her own for the first time on-campus. “It has everything I was looking for in a college and it’s close to home.

“I had the mindset that I wanted to leave and go away to college,” Lopez said. “When I actually got to the point of deciding, it was tough. It’s not easy to just go away for school. I am so happy with FIU. It’s beautiful.

“The coach is excited that me and the nine girls coming in all have pretty fast times,” Lopez said. “He thinks we will make a huge impact on the team.”

Lopez expects to swim the 100- and 200-yard butterfly events and 50-yard freestyle along with relays.

It will be bittersweet for Lopez during the banquet to relive great memories her six years with the club.

“I am so excited for the banquet, I have been looking forward to it all week,” Lopez said. “I am excited to be with my friends. Even though I will come back in the summer, it gets to you. This team is my family. I see them every single day. I can be 100 percent myself with them.

“Swimming has played such a huge role in my life, swimming is my life,” Lopez said. “I would be a completely different person if it wasn’t for swimming. I am healthy and I am happy.”

Lopez started to swim at age 8 because of chronic bronchitis. She has had no breathing problems since.

While Lopez has had several outstanding individual accomplishments, she takes pride in being a team player and enjoying her teammates’ successes.

“I have been able to connect with other people,” she said. “It’s not only about my own goals but my teammates goals. I see people work so hard in the pool and think wow, everyone on this team really wants to be good. It’s that team connection.”

One of her most satisfying moments in the pool was going a career-best 2:03 in the 200-yard butterfly in prelims of Florida Gold Coast Senior Championships in her home pool.

“I got out of that race and was so happy,” Lopez said. “It was exciting. It was one of the last big meets for me at our pool. I trained really hard for that meet and I am training even harder now.”

Another major accomplishment was being named to the USA Swimming Scholastic All-American team. Lopez has a 4.0 GPA and was ranked among top swimmers in the 100- and 200-meter butterfly, 200 individual medley and 400 freestyle.

Born in Havana, Cuba, Lopez qualified for the state high school meet as young as her freshman year.

Lopez said she has short and long term goals for the next chapter in her swimming. She would like to break records and qualify for NCAAs. She is also working towards a national cut. “I basically want to enjoy these next four years,” Lopez said.

Lopez has her sights set on breaking the FIU school record in the 200-yard butterfly (2:00.31) held by Marina Ribi and pool record (2:01.63) held by Christie Raleigh of Florida State.

Lopez is one of seven seniors who will be honored during SOFLO’s annual banquet at the Signature Grand in Davie on Saturday. Other seniors are Kaitlin Armstrong, Amber Hunter, Astrid Rigau, Bowie Suen, Olivia Katcher and Kry Nichlany.

By Sharon Robb,