Minium: How a Barbie doll floating in a pool changed the life of ODU swimmer Tara Enneking

By Harry Minium

NORFOLK, Virginia – Tara Enneking has always loved water. As a toddler, she jumped into anything that held more than a few gallons of liquid, whether it was a bathtub, a swimming pool, or the Atlantic Ocean.

“I’ve been told I like the water a little too much,” she said.

That’s an understatement. Her parents were constantly saving her after she jumped into the family pool.

The straw broke the camel’s back one afternoon when her mother, Amy Enneking, looked out the pool and saw what looked like her daughter floating face down in the water.

She ran downstairs and jumped into the pool and to her relief, it wasn’t Tara. It was a life-size Barbie doll that belonged to Tara’s sister, Megan.

It might sound humorous now, but it wasn’t funny for Amy, who immediately called her husband, Jeff, and said, “We’re going to enroll Tara in swimming lessons.”

And Tara hasn’t stopped swimming since.

Tara is a senior on the Old Dominion University swim team, which hosts Davidson on Saturday at noon in the Scrap Chandler Pool located in the ODU Student Recreation Center.


She looks back on this incident, which she was too young to remember, as something that changed her life.


“It sparked my love for swimming,” she said. “I started swimming lessons, then I joined a team and now look where I am today.”



Tara is one of the best swimmers in ODU – she placed in two events last season at the Conference USA meet and won a league championship two years ago – but is even a biggest star in the classroom.


A student on the Dean’s List, she is a civil engineering major who was awarded the coveted Edger A. Kovner Scholarship this year, reserved for top engineering students at the University.


For the Enneking family, engineering and swimming are family matters.


“I come from a family of athletes,” she said. “We are all over six feet tall.


“So it was kind of like, not you’re going to play a sport but what sport are you going to end up playing.”


His father, Jeff, was a rower at Ohio State. His sister, Amy, was a four-sport star in high school who played water polo at James Madison.


Tara played lacrosse for a while and was so good that she considered playing lacrosse full time. But in the end, she said her love of swimming won out.


His father is a nuclear engineer for Framatome, a firm based in Lynchburg. The family home is in Forest, Virginia, just west of Lynchburg. And clearly, the math and science genes run in the family – she also has an uncle who is an engineer.

Tara Enneking with Father Jeff

Tara Enneking and her father Jeff when she was a child


Since ODU and Virginia Tech have arguably the two best engineering schools in Virginia, she narrowed her many college choices down to those two as a senior. A star swimmer at Jefferson Forest High School and with the Lynchburg YMCA program, she also loved that both had good swim teams.


Partly because Virginia Tech is so much closer to home, she almost enrolled in Blacksburg.


“I was like picking my roommate at Virginia Tech at one point,” she said. “The coach offered me a place in the team.”


But then she visited ODU.


“I absolutely fell in love with campus,” she said. “And the team atmosphere was unlike anything I had ever seen. The camaraderie between the (men’s and women’s swim) teams here was incredible.


“ODU is not as big as Tech, and for me that was a good thing. It seemed like there was more communication between the teams. It felt more like a family.


“And then when I saw there were other engineering students on the team, I was like, OK, ‘I can do it here.’ “


She said that every time she came home, she told her friends about ODU.


“I tell them it’s an amazing school,” she said. “I tell them ODU is a hidden gem. Not many people from my side of the state come here.

“A lot of people don’t know this, but when ODU was started (as the Norfolk Division of the College of William and Mary and VPI) it was part of an engineering school. The engineering program here is really good.”

Tara Enneking and Madeline

Madeline Wilson and Tara Enneking are both civil engineering graduates

Majoring in a subject like engineering while competing as an athlete can be tough. Sometimes, especially last season when she was a junior, the classes she had to take conflicted with the practice hours.


“I would have to invent workouts on my own,” she said. “I was swimming alone in an empty pool. It was difficult, but I just kept a positive attitude, knowing that everything was temporary.


“My parents always told me that anything worth doing is hard because not everyone does it. And that’s something I always keep in mind.”


Kristen Eden, Director of Success for ODU’s Undergraduate Engineering Program, says Tara is one of ODU’s best and most engaging engineering students. Eden worked with Tara her first three seasons at ODU as the Director of Student-Athlete Academic Services.


“She’s so outgoing and has never met a stranger,” Eden said. “She makes everyone feel welcome.


“Her work ethic is so good. She is very organized. She is methodical in everything she does. She makes sure she achieves her goals, but at the same time she wants everyone to feel welcome. .”

And she does a ton of volunteer work away from the classroom and the pool. She does so much that she was honored with the ODU Sporit award.


Fourth-year swim coach Jessica Livsey said Tara “knows her goals in life, and she’s driven by them.


“The other day we had a training session and I mean it was tough. I knew it was tough when I put them through it.


“Tara was unfazed. She was so positive and tried to motivate her teammates to keep working.”

Tara Enneking


Tara says she’s lucky with this teammate Madeleine Willsona senior from Clinton Township, Michigan, is also majoring in civil engineering and shares the same minor – environmental engineering.


“We take a lot of classes together, and that makes it easier,” Tara said. “And we are close friends.”


Tara actually has a ton of friends beyond Willson. Livsey says she managed to stay close to all of her 57 male and female teammates.


“She gets along with everyone,” Livsey said. “She was able to find a connection with every single person on the team, regardless of background.


“She literally has a connection with everyone in the team and that happens so rarely.”


Although she is a senior, Tara could enjoy a fifth season and return next year. Shortly after the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 school year, the NCAA gave every varsity athlete an overhaul. Everyone got a fifth year of eligibility.


But Tara is eager to enter the working world of engineering and plans to graduate in the spring and find a job.


As a civil engineer, she can work on structural engineering projects, such as the construction of bridges, roads and buildings. But she’s intrigued by environmental engineering, which could include working on storm drainage systems or monitoring water quality.


Tara already has a job offer in Virginia Beach and while her options remain open, she says she plans to live in the Norfolk area.


“I loved growing up at Forest,” she said. “It’s nice.


“But sometimes you want something different from where you grew up. I love that area. I’ve made so many friends there.”


With her swimming grades and resume, she could have entered the transfer portal and perhaps moved on to a more prestigious swimming program with a bigger and better swimming facility.

Tara Enneking


“I love our pool,” she said. “We’re all Scrap. But it’s bigger and better pools, but ours has character.


“If I had swum at an ACC school, I would have been a team player, but I wouldn’t have played a vital role on the team like I do here. And for me, it’s important to be able to be a team leader. I feel like I have a big, big impact, a big mark on this team.

“No, that never crossed my mind. I like it too much here. I like my teammates too much.


“From the moment I set foot on campus, I knew this was where I was going to school. And I’ve never regretted that decision for a minute.”


She said she often thinks of that day so many years ago when her mother pulled a Barbie doll out of a swimming pool.


“It’s a little weird,” she said. “But if it hadn’t been for this doll, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today. I might never have learned to swim or ODU.


“It changed my whole life.”


And for that, ODU swimmers and coaches are grateful.

About Richard Chandler

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