By Sharon Robb
April 7, 2017—Jessica Rodriguez became the first South Florida Aquatic Club swimmer to sign with the University of Florida, one of the nation’s top collegiate women’s programs.
Eight years ago when she joined SOFLO, Rodriguez never dreamed she would be swimming for a Division I program.
The dream came true on Friday when the Hialeah Gardens High School senior officially signed her letter-of-intent in front of family and friends.
Rodriguez, 18, an Academic All-American and junior national qualifier, is the total student-athlete package that Florida coaches were looking to add to their successful program.
She felt comfortable with former Gulliver Prep head coach Jeff Poppell, associate head coach at Florida, who recruited her and good friend Kelly Fertel of Miami and Gulliver Prep alum, who is finishing her freshman season with the Gators.
“I am so excited to go to Florida,” Rodriguez said. “I didn’t plan on even applying to Florida. But after visiting the campus and talking to the coaches and Kelly, I really felt comfortable there. There was just something about the coaches that I thought I would do well with them and knew I would fit in there.”
Rodriguez, an honor roll student, was also excited that Florida offers an undergrad program in veterinary medicine, which she plans to pursue.
“I can flow right into grad school after that,” she said.
Rodriguez is expected to compete in both breaststroke events, individual medley and relays.
For SOFLO, it was another milestone.
While SOFLO has had dozens of swimmers commit to Division I, II and III programs, Florida carries a stature all its own in the swimming world.
Rodriguez has been a role model for young swimmers coming up and will continue to be one as she moves on. She has been a team leader and motivator and helped several swimmers with her positivity and work ethic in training including four-time Olympian Alia Atkinson of Jamaica.
“This is all pretty surreal,” Rodriguez said. “It feels like eight years ago was just yesterday and now I am one of the oldest swimmers going to Florida. It doesn’t feel like it is actually happening.
“I am glad to be a role model to those girls,” Rodriguez added. “When you hit 14 or 15 it gets really hard and you get unmotivated as we grow and struggle at times. I want to encourage them to continue their swimming and careers as collegiate swimmers.”
Rodriguez says she is ready for the rigors of a Division I program. She plans on kicking up her dryland and pool training during the summer with SOFLO head coach Chris Anderson.
“I am up for the challenge,” Rodriguez said confidently. “A year ago when I went through a rough spot, I wasn’t sure whether I would keep swimming. Chris helped me so much last year, and encouraged me through it and really helped me come to terms. I was able to become a better athlete.”
Rodriguez plans to visit her mother’s family in the Canary Islands during spring break before returning to SOFLO. She also wants to look into dual citizenship and would love to represent Spain internationally.
Despite his busy schedule, Anderson attended the signing on Friday morning.
“I am super excited for Jessica,” Anderson said. “She is confident she is going to be very happy and that means the most to me. The fact she has worked so hard on academics the last five years and is an Academic All-American speaks volumes.
“I really feel it is a great place as far as the state of Florida for her,” Anderson said. “She is going to be very challenged but she is already starting to make adjustments to prepare herself for the rigorous workouts at Florida.”
Anderson was impressed with her swims at junior nationals and Futures two years ago, but what sets her apart is her role as a team leader.
“Anyone that’s been on a team for eight years and found a way to get to the national group has leadership skills,” Anderson said. “At Senior Championships, she was motivating the freshmen and sophomores on how to be more successful. She took that role on her own.
“She has a stake in one of Alia’s world records because she motivated her in practice and helped her through those bad days every swimmer has and motivated her to do better things. She will continue that tradition when she moves on to Florida.
“She knows how to work and motivate. When she talks, people listen. I would like to think she will continue to be a role model for our club even when she is gone. It’s really nice to have someone at Florida for our club.”
Sharon Robb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org