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Ad Astra Per Aspera

Mar 11, 2014, 5:11 PM EDT

A while ago I was reading Notre Dame women’s swimming meet recap and noticed a familiar town name: Lawrence, as in Lawrence, Kansas. Whoa. While I’m from Wichita (Kansas), located about 2.5 hours south of Lawrence, I have family in Lawrence. So I texted my cousin, currently a junior at the University of Kansas, and asked, “Hey, Meredith! Just curious—do you know someone named Emma Reaney?”

“Yeah!” she replied. “She went to my high school/was in my grade. She goes to Notre Dame, right? She’s like an Olympic swimmer.”

Small world. So when I heard that junior Emma Reaney had broken an American Record in the 200-breaststroke at the ACC Championships in February, my Kansas pride bubbled up inside.

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While Reaney has been interviewed relentlessly about her Record-breaking swim, I thought I’d ask her some questions that she probably hasn’t had to answer lately (if ever). Along with her record-breaking swim, we talked about coming from Kansas—not a state that’s known for producing Olympic-caliber swimmers—how she came to choose Notre Dame as her home, plans for Rio 2016 and her advice to budding young hydrophiles (go google that, I’ll wait).

Reaney had no thought of records on her mind when she swam the 200-breastroke at the ACC Championships. When she finished, the timer read 2:04.34…0.14 seconds faster than the record, held by 2012 Olympic gold-medalist Breeja Larson.

“I think the more I think about it, the worse the swim goes,” Reaney revealed. “Right before the race, one of my roommates ran into the ready-room and just started screaming at me, which kind of freaked the other girls out, but was hilarious. I felt really good that night in warm-ups, so having that in the back of my mind was really good.”

After the race, she still wasn’t thinking about setting any records—at least not at first. “I didn’t know that I’d broken any record! I knew it was fast, so I immediately started crying. Then my coach ran over, gave me a hug and then was telling me stuff that I cannot even recall now. I think I blacked out after the race. I can’t even remember! Then my assistant coach was yelling, ‘Woo! American Record!’ And I was like, ‘Uhhh…what?’ and then I started crying all over again.”

When anyone from Kansas makes headlines, we get a little excited. Reaney said the support from home has been overwhelming. “I love my hometown and being able to say I’m from Lawrence, Kansas—I couldn’t imagine growing up anywhere else, and the support from there has been crazy insane. People I know through other people have been sharing us on Facebook and I’ve been getting texts, it’s just really cool.”

Evidently, Reaney was born to be in the water—not on a field, court, or in a dance studio. “I started off, of course, with the typical sports—soccer, basketball, tee ball—and for some reason, nothing stuck. My parents told me, ‘You have to do something, because you’re bouncing off the walls,’ so finally I tried swimming because one of my friends was in it. They put me on a kick board and told me to do breaststroke kick, and I asked, ‘What’s that?’ and they said, ‘Like frog kick.’ And I was just up and down the pool, so they were like, ‘Oh, all right. She can stay.’ And it was history from there.”

“History” led her to receiving a life-changing phone call several years later from someone else who was familiar with Lawrence: Notre Dame head coach Brian Barnes. Barnes, a former assistant coach at the University of Kansas for two seasons and head coach of Aquahawks Swim Club (1998-2002). Coach Barnes was the first person to call Reaney on the recruiting cut-off day when coaches are finally allowed to contact recruits. “That impressed me. I’m not Catholic, I didn’t even know where ND was, I didn’t have any family connections,” Reaney said, “So I was like ‘Okay. He’s putting in the effort. I’ll have to think about it.’”

source:  After official visits to The University of Texas and the University of Virginia, Reaney came to visit Notre Dame and cancelled her remaining trips after committing here soon after. “It was just that stupid—well it’s not stupid—but you get on this campus and you just know you have to be here. Everyone feels it, and there’s no way to explain it! I was like, ‘Mom, I think this might be it.’ And then I got home and Rudy was on TV. I turned on the TV and didn’t even change the channel. I was like, ‘This is weird!’” Along with campus charm, Reaney credits Coach Barnes’ ambition to drawing her in. “I could tell he really wanted to make this program a lot better. He was fairly new and wanted to take it to a new level and I wanted to be a part of that.”

Reaney has been a large part of the program’s success and she says she’s never regretted choosing Notre Dame over swimming powerhouses such as Texas or Virginia, because joining the more underdog of a team gives her motivation. “We have something to prove.”

Because I wanted to make sure she got a question different from the others asked of her in the last month, I asked Reaney what she would say to young swimmers if they came up to her asking for advice (which isn’t a terribly unlikely future for her). “This is kind of strange, and not super motivational, but if you really truly love swimming, stick with it. However, if it’s not something that you absolutely love, it’s a huge commitment of time and energy. I saw a lot of people that weren’t totally happy in the pool, but if swimming is something you totally love, don’t give up on it, even when it just flat out stinks,” Reaney said. “I actually almost quit before college. I just wasn’t getting any better and plateauing. Looking back on it, not quitting was the best thing I’ve ever done.”

And she plans to stick with it even after college. She wants to go to Rio in 2016 and swim for the United States—maybe set some more records?—and her coaches are all on board with the idea. Now her big decision is whether or not to get a job between graduation and the Olympics. But she says she’ll cross that bridge when she gets there…or more likely, she’ll swim under it.

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