Picture this: It's 5:15 a.m. on a chilly day and you're slipping into a goose-pimply swimming pool. Now imagine waking up at 4 a.m. so that you can get to the pool on time. Imagine doing that four days a week.
That's what the Owen High School swim team does. While the rest of the Swannanoa Valley is holding tightly to the last hour or two of sleep, these high school athletes are already in the car, in the pool, swimming laps at the Corpening Memorial YMCA in Marion.
For Brianna Harper and the rest of the swim team, that’s the kind of dedication the sport requires.
Harper, a sophomore in her second season on the team, joined last season with no experience as a competitive swimmer. She improved on her time in every meet last year, according to second-year head coach Brett McCall.
“In a first-season swimmer, you want to see that kind of consistent improvement,” McCall said. Harper was "taking chunks off of her time every single meet we went to. She came out of the gate this year and improved more.”
Harper was all in when she and her teammates learned that they would have to wake up before dawn to drive to Marion, a move made necessary because of the limited availability of the aging Zeugner pool in Buncombe County, the pool the team used last season.
“It’s all the way down in Arden, and the only times we could get that pool were like 7:30 or 9:30 at night,” McCall said. “That’s not a good time to hold practice. That’s far enough after dinner where you really don’t want to have dinner and then head out to the pool and swim.”
McCall looked east and found what he determined to be a much better option.
“I knew the Corpening pool was awesome because we had held a couple of practices there and we’ve had meets there,” he said. “I looked into it and found we could get a morning slot.”
The team was receptive to the idea when McCall proposed it, but the early morning practices have taken their toll on his roster. The numbers have dwindled, but swimmers like Harper and her teammates remain undeterred.
Harper's first thought when she wakes up for swim practice, she said, is "I can’t believe I’m up at 4 a.m.” But she loves swimming and is willing to sacrifice her sleep. She's not the only one in her family making sacrifices.
“I have two other siblings, so with my mom taking me to practice my dad has to take them to school,” Harper said. “I’m so thankful that my family has supported me with this.”
Harper’s goal is to compete in regionals in February. To do that she will need to spend her mornings and meets perfecting the butterfly stroke, which her coach said comes naturally to her.
“This year when the season opened I looked at her butterfly stroke, which is definitely the hardest of the strokes,” McCall said. "She had one of the strongest, most natural butterflies I’ve ever seen. It’s a very difficult stroke, and she’s taken it on.”
Harper is more comfortable in the water during this, her second season. She knows what she wants to improve upon. She asks her coach for feedback after each lap. “I just ask him what I’m doing wrong,” she said. “Then I go back through and try to work on fixing it.”
Improving each swimmer’s individual time consistently is the team’s strategy as well, according to McCall.
“The only thing that matters is improving your time every time you’re in the pool,” he said. “We don’t even focus on the other teams. We’re all racing against the clock and trying for personal bests.”