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Buffalo’s Best: Women’s No. 7: Sue Walsh

The Buffalo News polled sports staffers as to the top 10 male and female athletes from Western New York. Here’s No. 7 among women:

Name: Sue Walsh.

Sport: Swimming.

Hometown: Hamburg.

High school: Mount Mercy Academy.

College: North Carolina.

Born: Feb. 19, 1962.

Career overview: Sue Walsh was one of the nation’s premier swimmers while still in high school and remains the best to come from this region. She dominated in the backstroke and made the U.S. Olympic team for the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. Her dream to represent her country in the 200-meter backstroke ended that year when the United States boycotted the Games. She dominated her sport like no other athlete in University of North Carolina history, including basketball great Michael Jordan. Walsh was a four-time All-American who remained undefeated in the backstroke throughout her college career. She won eight NCAA titles in various backstroke events and 23 titles in the Atlantic Coast Conference. She also had the NCAA record in the 50-, 100- and 200-yard backstroke, plus dozens of short-course records. She was a three-time Swimmer of the Year in the ACC.

Memorable Moment: Take your pick. She broke the American record in the 100-meter backstroke in 1982. She won the 100- and 200-meter back in the NCAA Championships her senior year at North Carolina. She made the 1980 Olympic team shortly after a bout with mononucleosis.

“Honestly,” she said via text, “it’s difficult to isolate just one.”

Fingernail finish: Walsh was still the top U.S. woman in the 200 backstroke going into Olympic trials for the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. She was fighting off a nasal infection during her qualifying race and failed to take the final spot by one-hundredth of a second. It marked the second time the Olympic Games eluded her and ended her quest for winning a medal.

“I made peace with it,” Walsh told The News in 2014. “Once you have children, your perspective really changed on what’s important. Granted, it would have been wonderful to actually have been able to compete, compared yourself to the rest of the world and have that experience.

“I generally don’t regress too much to that because I can’t change it. Everything has a purpose in directing us and developing us into who we are. But who knows? Could I have had my picture on a Wheaties box? Maybe, maybe not.”

Tar Heel titan: In 1985, the year after Jordan won the Naismith College Player of the Year, it was Walsh who became the first Tar Heel ever awarded the NCAA’s Top Five. It was the highest honor given to student-athletes by the NCAA for the previous year. Walsh excelled in her sport while carrying a 3.77 grade-point average. In 1984, she was the first woman named UNC Senior Athlete of the Year.

Master mom: Walsh, who resides in Chapel Hill, N.C., took a break from competitive swimming while raising her three children but returned for masters events in her 40s. In 2007, when she was 45, she took home seven world records in the U.S. Masters Swimming Championships. At age 52, she set a world record in the 50 free for the 50-54 age group. She still swims regularly to stay healthy.

“It gives you an anchor, something you can count on,” she said. “Everything else might be falling apart around you, but you set aside that time. Even though it’s physically exhausting, it’s emotionally invigorating. And if I swim a couple miles, I’m not going to beat myself up in a few weeks when I go to Antoinette’s.”

Passing the torch: Walsh’s daughter, Sarah Stankavage, also was a member of the North Carolina swimming team. Another daughter, Shelby, swam competitively during her youth and is now teaching in Memphis. Son Shawn was a star high school quarterback who earned a scholarship in 2014 to Vanderbilt University.

“There’s a lot going on, and sometimes you feel like you’re not going to come up for air,” Walsh said. “For me, it’s about taking a deep breath, getting my arms around it all and attacking. I really do think back to swimming. Is this what really prepared me?”