— A handful of Nazareth Academy swimmers, led by senior Lauren Hirst and junior Shannon Harrington, recently participated in state and national competitions.
When Nazareth Academy’s Lauren Hirst jumped into the pool during the PIAA state swimming championships at Bucknell University from March 13-16, all of her nerves floated away.
Shannon Harrington, almost 900 miles away in Orlando, Fla., couldn’t help but think of Hirst and her four Nazareth teammates at states up north before she swam in USA Swimming’s Junior National meet (from March 11-17).
After all, swimming was the common denominator that had brought them altogether to chase success in the pool, even if they were nearly a thousand miles apart at that particular moment in time.
Competing against each other during grueling predawn practices six to seven days throughout the season was what got them to this point.
“During practice, we all kind of push each other to go faster,” Harrington said before she departed for Florida. “It’s much harder to swim by yourself.”
“Shannon always has impressive times and is so amazing in the pool that she’s motivated me to step my game up,” Hirst said. “Nothing about it was lucky.”
To recap, Hirst, a senior, and Harrington, a junior, competed in the PIAA Class AA District One championships at the turn of the month at La Salle University. For the first time in Nazareth’s history, the school had three of its students — Harrington, Hirst and Harrington’s younger sister, Mary, a sophomore — finish in the top three in one event, in this case the 200-meter freestyle. Shannon Harrington placed first, followed by Hirst and Mary. Subsequently, Shannon bolted for Orlando, while Hirst, Mary Harrington and fellow Nazareth swimmers Lauren Belecanech, Grace Kowal and Molly Kowal were bound for Bucknell.
Although none of the Nazareth swimmers in question were victorious in any of the events they participated in last week (Hirst placed 16th in the 200 free; Molly Kowal placed 10th in the 200 individual medley and 12th in the 100 breaststroke; Grace Kowal placed 6th in the 500 free; and Mary Harrington placed 11th in the 500 free), they managed to finish a respectable 20th in the state out of the 53 schools who swam at Bucknell.
As Shannon Harrington can certainly attest to, the state — and especially national — swim meets become much grander in scale, so achieving victory is not always in the cards. Rather, the girls focused on getting the best time they could, or at least improving upon showings from previous years.
For example, Hirst’s time of 2:00.06 at states was a few seconds behind the 1:57.30 mark she swam at districts; however, her time in the 200 free this year at states placed her 16th overall, up three places from 19th a year ago.
Above anything else, participating in such competitive events against the cream of swimming’s crop indicates how far each swimmer has come over the course of her career to date. Climbing out of the pool after an energy-sapping event is a gratifying experience, serving as a reminder as to why girls like Hirst and Shannon Harrington began swimming in the first place.
“I’ve swam since I was four years old, so this is 14 years for me,” said Hirst, who hopes to continue swimming at the club level at either of her top college choices, the Universities of Pittsburgh and Connecticut. “It’s such a disciplined sport, one that you practice literally all year round. Your body has muscle memory, so all the work you’ve put in shows up at the end of your season.
“If you want to do well in the sport, you have to train day in and day out and be willing to push yourself for several hours a day,” she continued. “Mentally, you have to get yourself to the point where you say to yourself, ‘I can do this, I can do this.’ That’s the biggest obstacle, much more so than the physical aspect.”
For Shannon Harrington, she uses swimming as motivation toward attacking the adversity life throws her way. Her father has battled health problems since she was in sixth grade, and has combated the emotions stemming from her dad’s trips to dialysis or the hospital by channeling her frustration in the pool.
“Throughout everything, swimming has been the one consistent thing that I’ve had in my life,” she said. “For me, it’s an out. I can just get in the pool, do what I need to do and worry about everything else later. When I’m swimming, I don’t think about anything else.”
Being around the water has also been a family affair for the Harrington’s. Separated by just one year, Shannon and Mary get to attend the same school and swim on the same team as each other throughout the season. Their older sister, Meghan, swam at Nazareth and is currently a freshman member of the women’s rowing team at Saint Joseph’s University.
The 3:45 a.m. wake-up calls for morning practice were hard to handle at first, but Shannon said the family learned to love rising well before everybody else.
“Nobody ever really complained,” she said. “It’s hard waking up so early, and nobody really wants to do that. But once you’re up, you get moving and it’s not so bad. What gets me going is those goals I set for myself before the season, ones that I want to work toward. When the alarm goes off and I’m lying in bed, that’s what’s on my mind.”
The scariest thing about such an accomplished swimmer like Shannon Harrington is that she’s still only a junior in high school, meaning her best swimming days may still be in front of her.
“I just really enjoy it,” she said. “It’s very demanding, and you have to give up a lot. It’s fun. I just love to swim. I could swim for hours by myself and not complain.”
As for Hirst, her high school swimming career is finished, but she suspects the sport to always be a part of her life.
“I’ve always swam, and I think it’s something I’ll probably continue, even if it’s only for myself,” she said. “For me, it offers a certain comfort zone. If I didn’t have it in my life, I’d probably go insane.” ••