Story by Cassandra Nava, Managing Editor
Lilliana Noriega’s toes practically hang off the edge of the pool. The swimmer isn’t getting ready to jump in, she’s shouting out words of support for her fellow teammates, doing her best to cultivate an aura of positivity.
“I just hope they can hear me cheering,” said the 19 year old after cheering for fellow teammate Zoey Francis during a 500-yard freestyle at last month’s Western State Conference Championships Swim Meet. “I hope that they can hear me cheering, and know that people are there.”
According to Noriega, she can only hear the shouts of her coaches, family and teammates when she comes up for air. If she’s doing it right, she should only hear them a few times. But that doesn’t stop her teammates and family from roaring in support.
The freshman is a Valley superstar. This is only her second semester swimming at the junior college level, but she’s no rookie. In her short time on campus, she’s broken two school records, one standing for 43 years. The record, set in 1975 for the 50-yard freestyle, was 25.1 seconds and Noriega completed it in 25 seconds flat. At the WSC Swim Meet in April, which was the qualifier for statewide championships, Noriega broke the record for the 100-yard backstroke. The swimmer’s time was 1:01.70, just three milliseconds faster than the previous record that was set in 2019.
Every millisecond counts in competitive swimming. Shaving off a few can mean the difference between breaking a school record, or competing at the state level.
In the first weekend of May, the Valley women's swim team traveled to East LA College to compete in the California Community College Athletic Association: Swim and Dive Championship. Noriega raced against the top swimmers of the state. Eight female athletes made it to the championship finals for the 100-yard backstroke, and Noriega finished in fifth place with a time of 1:00.57. Although not the outcome she wanted, the athlete maintained her optimistic attitude.
“Overall I think I did the best I could,” said Noriega post-championships. “I’m happy knowing I tried my best. I look forward to dropping more time in my events and placing higher in state next season.”
The swimmer’s outlook can likely be traced to her net of familial support.
The record breaker’s parents display a presence of resolute support, and seem to shape the 19-year-old swimmer’s positive attitude. Her parents, Bertha and Salvador Noriega, not only celebrate her achievements — she had the honor of choosing their celebratory post-competition dinner at Raising Canes — but help improve her performance in the sport. During the WSC Championships held at Valley, her mother recorded every race the swimmer participated in. While water splashed and coaches shouted, Bertha Noriega stood quietly and made sure to capture every stroke her daughter made so they could watch it back. This is common in sports, as athletes watch their “game film” to pinpoint specific motions that either strengthen or hinder their overall performance.
Her dad, on the other hand, didn’t stay quiet as he cheered loudly in support of Noriega.
“We hope she competes well, and puts it all together so it's a good race for her,” said the swimmer’s father, Salvador Noriega, before his daughter competed in a conference race that would make her eligible for state championships. “As long as she gets out of the water and feels like, ‘I did my best,’ that's good.”
The state swimmer has the privilege of leaning against the familial wall of support behind her, allowing her to extend the love to her teammates.
The Burbank native learned to swim by taking lessons at her local YMCA, and dove headfirst into competing. At age 12, she competed in the LA Swim Club, racing against others to gauge their speeds in the water.
She must’ve caught a bug for competing, since it carried on into her high school years. While attending John Burroughs High School, she broke four school records; the 50-yard freestyle, 200-yard freestyle relay, 200-yard medley relay and 400-yard freestyle relay.
Despite the numerous accolades, Noriega doesn't look like someone who cares if she wins or loses. The swimmer has a consistent smile on her face, happy to be included and recognized for her hard work. But looks can be deceiving, as she continues to place Valley on the map.
The second semester swimmer cites Katie Ledecky as an inspiration. Ledecky, the most decorated female olympic swimmer, is known not only for her achievements but for her positivity. Noriega mirrors this mindset, as she remains optimistic even when she doesn't come out on top.
When she doesn't win a race, Noriega says that she’s just glad she was able to drop some time on her own personal record. When she’s nervous before a race against women she knows are faster than her, she says she looks forward to the challenge.
“She just leads in and out of the water,” said women’s swim coach Pete Loporchio. “She’s the epitome of what a student athlete should be. She takes instruction, always looking to improve herself, always smiling and has a great demeanor.”
Someone like Noriega is invaluable in a team setting, consistently able to find the silver lining in every cloud. And, hey, if that cloud bursts you know she’ll be happy to swim in it.