Ridgefield swimmers Smith, Bornstein making national waves

January 14, 2018 GMT

RIDGEFIELD — When walking inside, at first glance the six-lane, 25-meter pool inside Barlow Mountain Elementary School isn’t particularly impressive or even that well lit. The pool has produced some incredible talent, though.

It’s been the home for the last 10 years for both AJ Bornstein and Kieran Smith, two All-Americans who have grown up swimming in the lanes next to each other. Now seniors at Ridgefield High School, the pair have rewritten the record books at the school and made a name for themselves at the national level representing Ridgefield Aquatic Club.

Smith — a freestyler and IM ace — sits at No. 8 in the 18 & Under World 100, a ranking of the top 100 high school-aged swimmers in the United States. Bornstein — who excels in the breaststroke events — is ranked No. 44 on the list.

“I would say it’s a special opportunity,” said Bornstein, referring to having two elite talents in one program. “At the large majority of clubs in the country you might have not have a person at this high a level. Having two people at this level pushing each other is great.”

Both began at about the same time as 6-year-olds inside the same pool. Each had family members that prompted their start in the sport. Success came fast and often, and a hobby soon became a full-time commitment. Now both spend 18 to 20 hours a week in the pool, and even more time training out of it.

Smith’s and Bornstein’s talent goes far beyond the high school level. They both appeared at the 2016 Olympic Trials and hope to do so again in 2020.

Smith earned a silver medal at the World Junior Championships for Team USA last August in Indianapolis. In a competition that featured many of the top youth swimmers from around the globe, Smith found himself in the virtual deep end, yet continued to thrive.

“It was scary,” Smith said. “I’ve never been at an international meet like that before. That was the first meet that I was truly scared. The first day pre-competition workouts, all of the countries were in the pool together and that was intimidating. Everyone was bigger than me, but I got settled in and used to it.”

Earlier that summer, both represented Ridgefield Aquatics at the 2017 Phillips 66 National Championships — a meet that features collegiate swimmers. Smith took top spot in the 400 IM at the 2017 Speedo Winter Junior Championships East held last month, setting a personal best 3:43.64 in the process.

Both standouts have finalized their college plans, and each are slated to join powerhouse programs. Smith will swim at the University Florida, while Bornstein will join several recent local Fairfield County standouts at the University of Michigan. Both universities are perennial top-10 programs.

“I made official visits to three schools and it was a tough decision,” Bornstein said. “I just felt Michigan was the best choice for me. I also have a cousin who dives on the team. When I was on campus it felt like a great fit.”

Many high-level swimmers forego the high school season to focus on training for the premier club meets, but loyalty to their town and the desire to lead a team has kept the pair wearing Tigers colors.

“One of the things is that we compromise training during the high school season,” said Ridgefield coach Emmanuel Lanzo, who is also a coach at Ridgefield Aquatics. “Most of the clubs that have high level swimmers are scared about their kids in the high school season. Kieran and AJ are here at 5 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. They have fun doing it and committing to the team as captains. These two are unique. I don’t know how many top 100 swimmers are doing high school.”

They’ve made the Tigers a force, too. Ridgefield topped FCIAC rival Greenwich in a dual meet for just the third time in the last three decades. The Tigers took fourth at FCIACs and Class LL, as well as sixth at the State Open last season. The pair racked up the points in all.

Ridgefield has high hopes for this winter after its win over the Cardinals. The group has nearly two months before the FCIAC swim finals take place March 1.

Both embrace the workhorse role.

“I love it,” Smith said. “I love to win and last year I won all four events at FCIACs (including relays). I like leading the team and scoring points.”

“I just hate to lose,” Bornstein added. “But I think a lot of it is that if you have the desire to be the best that comes with hard training and dedication. If you have that desire being a good swimmer is possible.”

Though it began in a small pool inside Barlow Elementary School, goals of reaching the highest level of the sport are dreamt while in those lanes.

“I think it’s a good motivational factor when you’re in the middle of a hard-long set, you can imagine yourself at NCAA or trials or the Olympics,” Smith said. “That’s what you put the work for and it helps you push for.”