On what should have been a triumphant moment in her young swimming career, Val Garcia was stunned to see a look of dejection in his daughter Isabella's eyes.
Just 12 years old, Isabella had already competed in high-level amateur events in Hawaii and Washington, and was now going head-to-head with some of the best talent in southern and central California during the 2014 South West Age Group Championships in Fresno.
In the 200-meter freestyle finals, Isabella swam a then-career-best time of 1:58.67. And while Val was thrilled for her, his daughter did not share his enthusiasm.
Feeling she'd done her best, Isabella was disheartened by the end result, where she finished more than seven seconds behind the race winner. So when she was greeted by her excited father afterwards, she responded with a visible scowl.
"I was jumping up and down," Val said. "And then she got out of the pool and I looked at her and said 'Why are you so mad? That was fantastic.' And she said 'As hard as I've worked, I'll never be as fast as those girls were.'"
Despite her disappointment, Isabella continued swimming at a high level in high school, even capturing a 2019 Southwest Yosemite League title in the 500 free as a sophomore at Garces Memorial.
But all the while, she struggled to regain her enthusiasm for the sport, feeling she'd already peaked.
"I was hitting good times but I wasn't dropping times or seeing the payback for my hard work," Isabella said. "I'd literally spend four hours in the pool every day and I wouldn't see any payback. That was so discouraging for me.
"You hit a wall in terms of, you can't drop any more time. You can't swim zero (seconds)."
Wanting a new challenge, Garcia soon found it thanks to a meeting with Jason Gall early in her sophomore year. Gall, the Rams' varsity water polo coach, was looking to add speed to an already solid roster, and presented Garcia with a appealing new opportunity.
Having previously succeeded in a sport that highlights individual accomplishments, Garcia felt taking part in a team game would offer the change of pace she desired.
“I loved being able to channel (my energy) into a new sport where ... I was getting gains where results were not just my wins, but I shared those wins with other people," she said. "It just made it so much more worth it.”
Over the next two seasons, the move to water polo certainly proved to be worth it for Garcia. After showing promise as a sophomore, she had a breakout junior season in 2019, recording 49 goals and 41 steals.
She found the ultimate team success as well. Two of her 49 goals came during the Central Section Division II championship game against Porterville-Monache, which the Rams won 15-8.
And though that final may prove to be Garcia's last shot at a section championship in water polo, her time with the sport is far from over. Earlier this week, she announced she'd be continuing her career at the Division-I level, committing to play at Santa Clara University.
Wanting to continue her education at a Catholic institution, Garcia, who plans to study biology, was also impressed by what the school had to offer academically.
Unsurprisingly, she's most excited about her athletic opportunity, one she never imagined would come after just two-plus years in the sport.
"I had no expectations for this to go anywhere," Garcia said. "I just really wanted to be happy and playing a sport I loved within my high school career. I would have never expected to be playing in college."
Though not exactly what she's looking for, there's still a chance Garcia will be able to return to the pool at some point before her 2021 high school graduation.
Recently, the CIF announced that under current youth sports guidelines, swimming and diving would be among the high school sports allowed to compete in counties in the purple tier, the most restrictive of the state's four-tiered COVID-19 system. Kern County is currently in the purple.
For water polo to take place, the county would have to move into orange, the second-least restrictive tier.
In need of as much training as possible for the exciting future in front of her, Garcia, who plans to swim the 200 individual medley, 500 free and 100 butterfly, says she's feeling rejuvenated and ready for any opportunity to grow before arriving in Santa Clara.
“I’m beyond elated," she said. "There aren’t words to describe how happy I am, how grateful I am.”