Parker, Poppas Big Island connection thrives at Vermont

  • Vermont photo Hawaii Prep alum Kira Parker just missed securing her first individual gold medals in two races at the American East Conference swimming championships. She claimed four silvers, two on relays.

  • Vermont photo Waiakea alum Mina Poppas captured four silver medals at the American East Conference swimming championships, with three coming on relay races.

Waiakea alum Mina Poppas may never have found her way to her Division I college home in New England if not for Kira Parker.

“If it wasn’t for (her) I probably wouldn’t have even known (the University of Vermont) existed, let alone come and swim here,” Poppas said.

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That Parker, a Hawaii Prep alum, continues to finds her way so steadfastly with the Catamounts is at least in some small regard thanks to Poppas.

“Any chance I get to swim with Mina is so special,” Parker said. “She is such a great friend, and she not only pushes me to be a better athlete, but also a better student and person.”

Parker & Poppas – or Poppas & Parker.

Either way, they represent the 808 and have the 802 of the Green Mountain State covered.

Each earned all-star honors and reached personal-bests at the recent America East Conference championships, where agonizing close calls and silver medals were the final verdicts. Vermont was third at the championships, getting its second-highest point total from Parker, with Poppas just behind.

Parker, a junior, narrowly missed winning her first individual college golds in the 50-yard freestyle, getting out-touched by a mere five one-hundredths of a second, and in the 100 freestyle, where she was less than a half a second off the pace. She also took bronze in the backstroke.

Does Parker celebrate silver or pine for gold?

“I would say both,” she said. “I had some amazing competition this year and I’m just grateful to be racing with these women. It truly was anyone’s race and they just had a little more at the end. I am very happy with my silver and bronze, but of course, I’ll be coming back swinging next year.”

Poppas, a sophomore, claimed her first college medal with a runner-up finish behind New Hampshire’s Jamy Lum, a Kamehameha-Kapalama graduate, in the 500 free. She was third in the 200 free and fourth in the 100.

“Before the 500 free, Jamy and I were talking and reminiscing about our senior state meet when we raced against each other in the same event,” Poppas said. “I had a lot of fun swimming it and racing against a familiar opponent and someone from Hawaii. It was also my first official time breaking the (5-minute mark) in the 500 free, so that was pretty cool, and something I have been trying to do since high school.”

Like any good Big Island duo competing some 5,000 miles away from home, Parker and Poppas – or Poppas and Parker – did some of their best work competing together on relays, earning two silvers and a bronze.

“My teammates definitely appreciate how rare it is for us to both be from the same island so far from home,” Parker said.

In the 400 free, Parker swam the lead leg and Poppas was the anchor, but she took second again to Lum and New Hampshire, by a quarter of second.

“Although it was frustrating in the moment, now I am just excited and ready for what the upcoming year has to offer,” said Poppas, who took a fourth silver in the 800 relay. “Definitely will be using that loss for motivation going into the next season.”

Plus, she said, “Being on the same team and medal-winning relay teams as Kira is so fun.”

It was like that in high school even when they were swimming against each other. Parker was a three-time BIIF champion in the 100 free, and she likely would have been a three-time champ in the 100 backstroke. Instead, her senior season of 2018 she took one for the team by taking on Poppas in one of her signature events, finishing second in the 200 free as HPA won its fifth consecutive BIIF title.

“Swimming at HPA set the standard of good coaching, the expectation of hard work from the swimmer, as well as the fun that can be had with teammates,” she said. “Swimming at (Vermont), although a huge stressor and time commitment, is what grounds me. I have learned so much about how powerful the mind is and what hard work really looks and feels like. It has introduced me to so many amazing people that I truly believe will always be in my life. I am very grateful for my time here.”

Poppas took gold in both distances freestyle races her final two years at Waiakea, and she’s BIIF record-holder in the 200 and holds the championship record-holder in the 500.

“Due to the pandemic, I wasn’t able to swim for a couple months, and whenever I got to swim the training was pretty inconsistent,” Poppas said. “But because of this I was able to find a new sense of appreciation for the sport, and realized I took being able to train at a high intensity with some of my best friends everyday for granted. This allowed me to enjoy swimming more than I ever have this past season.”

Parker is studying neuroscience with a minor in pharmacology and has her eye on applying her education to help people, she said, possibly as a clinical psychologist. She’s moved far from home, but she’s not far from what she loves while living in Burlington

“Vermont is beautiful,” she said. “The lake is a 10-minute walk from campus, and I love having the water so near me.”

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The natural beauty helps offset the cold, said Poppas, who is majoring in biology and wants to go to medical school.

“My favorite thing about living in Vermont is probably the change in seasons,” she said. “Although it gets really cold in the winter, when the leaves change color in the fall it’s so beautiful and makes the cold slightly more bearable.”

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