By MARK PATTON NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER
Andrea Ward won't be dreaming about Brazil and the 2016 Olympics when she plunges into the NCAA Swimming Championships in Minneapolis on Friday.
She's more interested in what awaits her on the mean streets of the Dominican Republic on Sunday.
UCSB's senior swimming star doesn't need to conquer the world just yet. She just wants to help one little corner of it through the Christian ministry group, Here For Kids International.
"I'm not really sure what to expect in the Dominican, this is my first time ever doing something like this," Ward said. "I don't even know how much swimming I'll be teaching these kids, but I do know I want to connect with them.
"I'll be hanging out with a lot of orphans and kids from very different backgrounds, and I'm just going to try to spread the love of Christ to them."
Her whirlwind tour began with a flight to snowy Minnesota on Tuesday, coming just hours after she'd taken her last final of the winter quarter. Ward, an honors student in biology, was already racing the clock, finishing the three-hour exam on evolution in barely two hours.
"I was definitely running high on adrenalin because of how exciting the next couple of weeks are going to be," she said.
Ward is seeded 10th in the NCAA's 100 butterfly, which will be held on Friday. A top-eight finish will be worth All-America honors. She's also seeded 19th in Saturday's 200 fly.
"It's been a storybook year for Andrea no matter what happens," UCSB coach Gregg Wilson said. "It began for her the first week of December when I took her and Katie Records, Wade Allen and Ryan Hanni to Texas for a big collegiate invitational.
"On the first day, she popped off a time in the 100 fly (51.76) that was the sixth fastest in the country. I'm going, 'Oh my gosh, what the heck is this?' The Texas coaches are also the Olympic coaches, and they were all going, 'Who is that?'"
Ward redefined that this school year, beginning with her baptism in October.
"I surrendered everything that I had planned, and I had a lot of plans," she said. "I was thinking of going to graduate school to become a physician's assistant or a physical therapist, and I was also in a pretty serious relationship that ended very suddenly.
"But it's been enjoyable to not have any serious expectations but to just take each day as it comes. I don't know exactly how that's correlated with the Dominican Republic and my qualifying for the NCAAs, but I'd say this year opened up more opportunities for me than any other year of my life."
Those could still include a future in graduate school, a medical career or even an Olympic Games.
"I'm never going to tell somebody like Andrea that they can't do that," Wilson said of Ward's Olympic chances. "Richard Schroeder was a nobody when he walked onto our program and 22 months later was on the 1984 Olympic team. That had everything to do with Richard and little to do with us.
"But what I intend to do is give Andrea as much support as I possibly can because she is worth it. She influences all the rest of the kids on the team, and not just in the water."
Ward had a breakout season as a sophomore, winning Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Swimmer of the Year honors while qualifying for the 2012 NCAA Championships in the 100 and 200 fly.
"I didn't expect to be nervous at all when I got there," she said. "I wasn't nervous the whole time until I got up onto the blocks, and then I looked around at all these great swimmers, several of whom are Olympians, and went, 'Oh my goodness!'"
She finished 29 th in the 100 fly and was 40th in the 200 fly.
There would be no MPSF award or NCAA meet for Ward at all last year.
"It was definitely a goal of mine this year to get back to where I'd been," she said.
But Gaucho coach Tim Siciliano advised her to stop looking backwards.
"We had these goal meetings with the coaches, and I was thinking a lot about my previous years," Ward said. "Tim reminded me that this is a different year.
"He said, 'You're stronger. You're better. You're more experienced. You can't live in the past.'"
She responded by approaching her weight lifting with a passion that Wilson has rarely seen. She's become a weight-room wonder on the pull-up bar, "putting all the guys to shame" in the weight room, Wilson said.
"She usually does three sets of 15 within the little circuit they do," he said. "Three weeks before the conference meet, she did 15, 18 and then 16.
"We're now going to have her do them with a weighted vest."
Ward tore through this year's MPSF Championships, reclaiming her Swimmer of the Year Award after winning four individual events while setting UCSB and league records in three of them. She also led three Gaucho relay teams to victory.
She has 18 career league titles to her name.
Surrendering to her fate, Ward said, didn't mean not trying her best.
"I felt that since this was the last time I'd be doing this here, I'd better make it good," she said. "That's what's been fueling the whole year, giving it my best.
"It's been a pretty hectic year in school and in the pool, just balancing things, but also growing as a person."
Ward has always had a strong Christian faith. She decided to do something about it, however, when teammate Hope Curran told her about Here For Kids International and its upcoming mission to the Dominican Republic.
She'll be joining over 20 other collegiate athletes, including Curran, in Monte Plata on Sunday, bringing a 100-pound bag of donations with her.
"When I first told my parents that I wanted to go on this trip, they reminded me that I have so many priorities that I need to stay focused on," she said. "But what I've really realized this year is that my time is not my own. I've been given so much, and it's important for me to invest those gifts in the people around me."
Even those as far away as the Dominican Republic.