Kalina Ginocchio is one of the top swimmers on the Cardinals team. (Photo by Rich Fisher.)

Kalina Ginocchio has long been known for a happy-go-lucky, bubbly personality that gives the impression that all is well in her world.

It shows exactly how tough she is.

Ginocchio is happy and does enjoy life. But her smile is masking some real misery that she manages to battle through in order to compete effectively for the Lawrence High School swim team.

“I had shoulder injuries that have held me back the past few years,” the senior said. “But I’m still in the pool, kicking and working hard. The injury doesn’t let me practice that much because after a while it can be painful, but you gotta push through it a little. I have to continue to make myself go faster so I can do better in meets.”

She has done well as one of the top swimmers on a young but talented Cardinals team, excelling in dual meets in the 50 and 100 and also helping the medley relay and 200 free relay teams.

There are times, however, where she truly struggles to keep grinding away.

“There’s definitely been nights where I get home and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, I don’t know why I’m pushing myself. The pain’s not worth it,’” Ginocchio said. “Then I go back the next day and I see my team, and we’re having a good time and I say, ‘OK, well that’s why.’”

Former LHS standout Hillary Hargraves-Dix is now in her second year as the Cardinals head coach, and she was known Ginocchio since she was a little girl and Hargraves-Dix was lifeguard/district manager at the Ben Franklin Swim Club where Kalina swam.

The two have built a strong relationship, and the coach can’t overstate how impressed she is by the swimmer’s grit.

“She pushes through a lot and is very good at knowing her limits and balancing practice with icing and resting,” Hargraves-Dix said. “I’m really proud and I continue to be impressed by her work ethic.

“Sometimes she’ll spend a lot of the practice just kicking to give her arms a break. That can be redundant and boring while she’s watching the rest of her team complete a whole complicated set of different things and she’s just kicking, kicking, kicking. You would never know if she was annoyed or irritated by it or bored. She just keeps working. That’s what she needs to do to keep herself in shape and prepare for meets.”

Although Ginocchio, by her own admission, won’t have good enough times to qualify for the state meet in her final year of competitive swimming, she did finish ninth in the 50 free at last year’s Mercer County meet and hopes to reach the final 12 again this year as an individual and with her relay teams.

She also racks up numerous dual meet points with her high finishes in the 50 and 100, which has helped the Cardinals regain their perch as CVC Valley Division champs. Lawrence won the division her freshman year and as of mid-January, was 7-2 and only needed to beat an undermanned Robbinsville team to regain the crown this season. LHS also looked to be in a good position to reach the states as a team after making them in Ginocchio’s first two seasons.

The Cards have been sparked by eight freshmen on their small-but-strong 15-girl roster. Ginocchio and fellow captain Emma Byrne are the lone seniors and junior Kelly Kaelblein is also a captain.

“They’re great,” Ginocchio said of the freshmen. “They’re really sweet, we all get along really well, which is good. They definitely push me to go faster with how fast they all are.”

It was around her own freshman year that Ginocchio permanently committed to swimming. Her mom started Kalina and sister Ava Marie, at Ben Franklin when she was 4-years-old. It was a smooth beginning.

“My mom told me I was comfortable in the pool,” Ginocchio said. “I wasn’t crying, I didn’t freak out.”

A few years later she joined the BF swim team, which competes in the Princeton Area Swimming and Diving Association. By then, Hargraves-Dix had befriended the youngster.

“She was like she is now, always smiling, very happy, friendly; her and her sister would always hang around the pool,” the coach said. “She was a hard worker back then too and she’s continued those patterns. She was always someone who made showing up at pool for work enjoyable. She made you laugh and was just a cute kid.”

Although she was not competing in a high-profile club, which sometimes causes swimmers to burn out, Ginocchio still felt she needed a break from the sport around seventh grade. While Ava Marie—a huge influence on Ginocchio who now swims for Ithaca—was loving it, little sister was not. She was focused on dancing at the time.

“I came back in eighth grade and swam with Pennington Aquatics,” she said. “Taking a break gave me more time to think about things. I started to realize I wanted to do a different sport and do both swim and dance. I did both of them up until my sophomore year.”

By then, she had committed to swimming and given up dance, although it was not the sport she embraced as much as what surrounded it.

“I was enjoying it more because I had my friends doing it, and I found the team aspect more enjoyable,” she said. “I never enjoyed the actual sport but when I had my team with me, I liked that.”

Hargraves-Dix is so familiar with that mindset, that she used it to get into Penn State University by writing her college application essay on the subject.

“Swimming is such a love-hate sport,” she said. “Most people don’t enjoy getting in the pool in the middle of winter, having wet hair; it dries out your skin. For a while I thought I wasn’t going to swim in high school because I was also involved in cheerleading.

“I didn’t want to go back to it but there’s always something about it for swimmers that they can’t get anywhere else. Kalina definitely enjoys the races and the competitiveness and the team camaraderie.”

Upon returning to the pool, her events remained the same as she has sprinted all her life.

“She kind of shines in 50 and the 100, she doesn’t stray from that,” Hargraves-Dix said. “She’s a very solid person I can rely on in those events to swim well and score points. It’s nice to have swimmers you can put in different places, but it’s also nice to have someone show up and do what you need them to do in the same events.”

And she has the secret formula to short-distance success down pat.

“Definitely the kick,” Ginocchio said. “You’ve gotta have a good kick to match your arms. I know my kick helps me a lot when I’m sprinting. And definitely your turns. You need a fast turn to keep up with everyone else, especially in the 50.”

While Ginocchio has enjoyed her time as a competitive swimmer, she said she is “closing this chapter of my life,” after graduation as she looks to attend a school in the south.

One thing is certain. She made the right move coming back to the sport.

“These last four years,” she said, “I definitely wouldn’t change anything.”