By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — All three of her families were watching when Niskayuna High School senior Zeynep Balto conquered key relay legs as the Silver Warriors won the 200-meter and 500-meter free swims in a sectional meet at Shenendehowa.
Sharing the pool, and their eventual 451.5-446.5 victory against Shenendehowa, were her teammates, the people who welcomed her like an old friend when she moved to America from Turkey at the beginning of her junior year.
Standing on the deck was her host family, longtime friends who convinced her to give an American school a try late in the summer of 2013.
And watching via Skype from Turkey were her parents and her sister, 21-year-old Nihal.
The scene was a world away from her first two years of high school.
“In Turkey, the high school swimming is not that big,” said Balto, 18, who started swimming when she was 6. In Turkey, she was part of an enormous club team. She liked it, but it was a bit impersonal.
“Here we are more like family,” she said during a post-sectionals practice as she watched her teammates slice up and down the lanes of the high school pool.
Her coach, Steve Hall, helped her forge relationships that made her feel at home in Niskayuna.
“Steve [made us] connect with each other a lot,” she said. “He really knows how to train and motivate us.”
Now, the girls rely on each other for their daily dose of cheerfulness and friendship.
“We all have fun practices,” Balto said. “If someone is in a bad mood we always try to cheer her up.”
Not that she’s often in a bad mood, since she enjoys her classes, especially math and science, and her Niskayuna home life. In fact, Balto says living with her host family is just like living with her biological family.
“They have the same character,” she said. “They are so supportive.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Balto’s real and surrogate families get along so well. About six years ago, her host family sent their older son to Turkey for an exchange trip. The son was a runner, and so was Balto’s father. Their sport connected them, and soon connected their families, who have made many visits since.
During one such trip in 2013, Balto’s American hosts were talking with her parents in Turkey. They were discussing the possibility that Balto could study in America during her final year of high school.
She had just completed her sophomore year, and her American friends asked why she had to wait. They suggested she could spend her junior year in the United States.
Balto took the leap. It was late summer, so there wasn’t much time. There was a flurry of paperwork, a long flight, and then, suddenly, her first day of school here.
“It was pretty quick,” she said. “I didn’t really have time to think.”
She had been learning English since grade school in Turkey, but still had to overcome a language barrier.
“I was pretty nervous,” she said.
It would’ve been jarring for any teenager, but Balto knew where she could go to feel more comfortable: the swimming pool. She said she always feels happy and relaxed after a swim. “When I don’t go to practice, I feel like something is missing,” she said.
She is in the water as much as possible. In addition to her high school swim team, she is on the Starfish club swim team.
But even in the pool, things were a little different in her new setting. Balto said adjusting to pools measured in yards, rather than meters, was a bit awkward. She also said the swimmers here are tougher to beat.
For a competitive edge, she relied on her coach. He wrote extra workouts for her to do on her own before school — she tackles them five days a week. He’s also helped with college research, since Balto wants to pursue higher education in the United States, somewhere she can continue her swimming career. She’s hoping for Siena College, Colorado State University or Binghamton University, where she plans to study sports nutrition.
Her coach said he doesn’t mind giving her the extra time and attention she needs because he finds Balto inspiring.
“She chose to come someplace that’s a little more competitive,” he said. “That’s admirable.”
Since she’s a role model to the team already, after just one year in the United States, Hall promoted Balto to one of four team captain positions.
She seems to have risen to the occasion. She said one of her favorite things about her team is the way they motivate each other by working hard and striving to be excellent.
She’s especially excited for the last state championship of her high school swim career, which will take place in Ithaca from Nov. 21-23.
She said she hasn’t given the meet much thought yet, but she knows her teammates will help her find the strength she needs to make them proud.
“We will motivate each other as a team,” she said.