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When she was 7 years old, Maya DiRado interviewed her hero, Redwood Empire swimming phenom Amanda Sims, for a school project.

It makes no difference that Sims was just 12 years old herself. She’d already set national age-group swimming records and was on her way to becoming, the following year, the youngest swimmer in the country to compete in the U.S. Swimming Championships.

DiRado, now 23, followed in her youthful idol’s wake, breaking records throughout her career with Neptune Swimming, Maria Carrillo High School and Stanford University.

Now she’s hoping to inspire younger swimmers, just like Sims did for her 15 years ago.

DiRado, who has qualified for eight events at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, is visiting swimmers from the Neptunes and Santa Rosa Junior College this afternoon at the JC pool.

Call it repayment for some of the support she received in Santa Rosa years ago.

“I was super fortunate,” DiRado said, taking a break from practice last week at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. “I had a unique club swim career. It was a very relaxed, happy, fun club swimming experience. We trained hard and swam fast, but it was always, like, ‘It’s just swimming at the end of the day.’

“I’m so grateful for that perspective. It’s been so beneficial for my career.”

DiRado will compete in Omaha, Neb., starting June 26 in the qualifying heats for the 100-meter individual medley, 400 IM and 200 backstroke. She is ranked first in the nation in both her IMs and second in the country in the 200 back. She had qualifying times in five other events as well.

Thursday in Santa Rosa, the USA Swimming National Team member will conduct clinics for JC swimmers and Neptune athletes, a few of whom no doubt also have Olympic aspirations.

Four other current or former female Neptune swimmers have qualified for the trials: Rebecca Baxley, Piper Brockley, Allie Davis and Molly Hannis. Riley Scott of Petaluma, who swam with the Marin Pirates, also qualified.

The home visit will reunite DiRado with her original mentors, SRJC coach Jill McCormick and Neptune coach Dan Greaves.

Greaves realized when he first met DiRado, when she was 8, that she had an intensity different from most swimmers.

“When Maya was about 12, she was posting some times that were very impressive,” he said. “That was the first time that we all went, ‘Oh, this is not just a regional thing. She’s a national-caliber swimmer.’”

Though several world-class swimmers have come through the Neptunes, Greaves impresses on his athletes that it’s the swimming that counts, not the records or the medals.

“The chances of somebody from Santa Rosa making the Olympic team is slim to none,” he said. “Maya’s got a really good shot of making the team. And Molly has a decent shot. It’s hard for us to wrap our brains around it.”

Hannis, a 24-year-old 2010 Santa Rosa High School graduate, swam at the University of Tennessee. She qualified for the 100-meter breaststroke, in which she is ranked second nationally, and the 200 breast, where she is sixth in the country.

DiRado first started in the pool at age 5, not as a competitive swimmer, but with the Oak Park Swim & Racquet Club synchronized swim team.

Her mother swam, too, with encouragement from McCormick, a family friend. Maya, whose full name is Madeline (she earned the nickname when her sister couldn’t pronounce her name), soon transitioned to the swim team.

“I don’t know if it’s as much something about the pool drew me to it, or that I enjoyed the process of swimming and it was something that I was good, something I could really work hard at,” DiRado said. “I always did feel comfortable in the water. It’s very peaceful, very calming to me.”

With the Neptunes, young athletes are taught that there is more to swimming than individual successes.

“We always talk to them about being a part of something bigger than themselves,” Greaves said. “This brings that back around. Maya has some pretty fond memories of her years on the Neptunes.

“To give a little back will show our young ones that you don’t forget where you come from. I hope that they get from her that she doesn’t take herself all that seriously, and that it takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice – and all of that is worth it.”

Now married and living near Stanford, DiRado plans to retire after this Olympic pursuit. Although swimmers can compete well into their 30s, she said this is her last go-round. She qualified for the trials in 2008 and 2012 as well.

“I’m so much more confident,” she said. “I’ve had really great times under my belt. The last couple years have been really consistent. I’ve just grown a ton as a swimmer and as a person. That still doesn’t guarantee you a spot on the team, but I think I’m in a much better place.”

Her times in the past year have been excellent. She won a silver medal at the 2015 FINA World Championships and placed second in the 2015 World Championships in Russia in the 400 IM, won the 2015 Winter Nationals in the 200 and 400 IMs, and was second at the Winter Nationals in the 200 back.

For a woman who never considered she’d swim beyond college, DiRado now competes with Speedo USA and BMW as her professional sponsors. That allows her to continue to train for the Olympics while she defers her job offer from McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting company.

“I did not want to be a swimmer who was clinging on too long, afraid to move into the real world,” she said. “But it’s great to have this huge, exciting thing I’m looking forward to, and then this great life experience waiting afterward.”

You can reach Lori A. Carter at 521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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