Duluth’s J.P. Portillo became the first Duluth boys swimmer to win a Gwinnett County championship since 2000. Portillo won the 100 breaststroke and is a favorite to win the Class AAAAAA state championship in the event this week at the state meet. (Staff photo: Brandon Brigman)
J.P. Portillo stood in the ready room at the Class AAAAAA state championship meet at Georgia Tech last year and began to notice something as he looked around the room.
“I was like, ‘He’s a senior, he’s a senior, he’s a senior,’” Portillo recalled.
In the finals of the 100-yard breaststroke, Portillo realized he was one of two swimmers returning from the final heat.
“I came out and finished sixth. Just all of them graduating, I was like, ‘Let’s go get this next year,’” Portillo said. “Having that within arm’s reach made me want to work hard.”
Next year is now.
For the past 360 days, Portillo has been focused on returning to the state meet. He’s no longer looking to just reach the final heat — he wants to win it all.
“We set the goal last year on the deck after he broke the school record, looking at the heat sheet. Of the eight guys in the finals, six are seniors,” Duluth coach Jim Reason said. “I said ‘Hey, it’s there for our taking.’ We’ve set a goal since last year to win state. It won’t define him if he doesn’t or how good a swimmer he is, but it’s a special goal.”
Portillo emerged as a legitimate state championship contender at the Gwinnett County Championships two weeks ago. The junior won the 100 breaststroke with a time of 58.29 seconds and placed third in the 200 individual medley.
“It was a really, really special moment. We’ve always had talented swimmers here. Some of the best in the state,” Reason said. “In this county, everybody that is top 10 in county is top 10 at state. Winning a county title is a special thing.”
To make the county title even more memorable, Portillo became the first Duluth boys swimmer to win an individual county championship since Tim Montgomery in 2000.
“I didn’t know I would be the first one in 15 years,” Portillo said. “(Reason) told me as soon as I stepped out of the water. It was a pretty sweet moment.”
To see Portillo make history wasn’t too much of a shocker for Reason. He knew he had a special swimmer since Portillo was 10 and he swam for the Thunderbolts.
“He’s the most naturally talented swimmer that I’ve coached,” Reason said. “He picked up on it right away instantly when he started with me with the Thunderbolts.”
It took Portillo to some time to embrace the sport. He joined the swim team thanks to some friends. Practice wasn’t fun and he just wasn’t feeling it.
“I did not want to swim,” Portillo said. “I was like, ‘Swimming is such a dumb sport.’ Then I got in and I was like, ‘Hey, this is fun.’”
His competitive drive was unleashed in his first meet. Portillo tracked a kid down in the medley relay and never looked back on his passion for swimming.
“After that I kind of fell in love,” Portillo.
By the time he was 13, just three years into the sport, Portillo was ranked No. 10 in the nation in his age group.
“I could tell by the eighth grade he was going to come in and make an impact,” Reason said. “You could see that he was being ranked nationally. I knew before he got here he had something special.”
Portillo’s leadership was apparent after his first high school meet. Duluth lost by one point to Norcross, a meet it shouldn’t have lost.
“Ever since that day, I never wanted that to happen again,” Portillo said. “My training, I took it up a notch.”
Duluth has posted a 34-4-1 dual meet record the last three seasons with big contributions from Portillo. He was fifth in the 200 IM and 10th in the 100 breaststroke as a freshman at county. He followed that up by placing 12th at state in the 100 breaststroke and 14th in 200 IM.
“I’ve always been the person that if you work the hardest, then you will touch the wall first,” Portillo said.
As a sophomore, Portillo placed fourth at county in the 100 breaststroke and 200 IM and then reached the finals in the 100 breaststroke at state and was 10th in the 200 IM.
He continues to train at SwimAtlanta, where he focused on his dry land training with former Auburn All-American Karl Krug.
Despite spending three hours a day in the pool, Portillo still finds time to maintain a 4.0 GPA while taking four Advanced Placement classes.
“He’s got all the characteristics you want,” Reason said. “He works hard, he sets goals for himself. He has tremendous confidence. I’ve always said the swimmers with confidence are the most dangerous swimmers.”
Now Portillo takes that confidence and experience to Georgia Tech, where he hopes to become Duluth’s first state champion since 1999.
“If you look at his progression, we’re hoping for a state championship this year,” Reason said.
THE PORTILLO FILE
Name: J.P. Portillo
Dream job: Engineer
Favorite sports team: Miami Heat
Favorite movie: “The Sandlot”
• Won Gwinnett County championship in the 100 breaststroke this season
• Placed sixth at state meet in the 100 breaststroke and 10th in the 200 IM last year
• Won Georgia state championship in the year-round long course 200 breaststroke in 2013
• Ranked in top 20 in 200 breaststroke in the nation
• Holds school records in the 100 breaststroke (58.27 seconds) and 200 free relay
• Maintains 4.0 GPA, while taking four AP classes, and is a member of National Honor Society
• Scored 35 on ACT and 2070 on SAT
• Has drawn college interest from Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Louisville, N.C. State, Tennessee, Northwestern, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Duke
Duluth Swimmer J.P. Portillo
Duluth Swimmer J.P. Portillo talks about his success this season leading up to the state championship.