Oct. 7, 2014
By Renee Peggs
If Lawrence, Kansas native and University of Notre Dame senior swimmer Emma Reaney were to click her heels three times and say, “There’s no place like home,” she’d probably find herself in a pool training for her many different events. She could just as easily wind up on the medal podium, though.
Reaney broke the American record in the 200-yard breaststroke (2:04.34) at the Atlantic Coast Conference meet last spring. A month later, she did it again, breaking her own record at the NCAA Championships (2:04.06) by shaving nearly three-tenths of a second off her ACC time.
To the swimming world, Reaney made a big splash and seemingly came out of nowhere, becoming the first Notre Dame student-athlete to hold an American record while enrolled at the University and the first Irish women’s (or men’s) swimmer or diver to win an NCAA title.
She’s not in Kansas anymore.
“The world was taken by shock [when Emma broke the record],” says Josh Skube, the volunteer assistant coach for the Notre Dame women’s swimming and diving team, “but this was not surprising to us.”
Compared to the likes of the Auburn, California or Georgia dynasties, Notre Dame typically has not been known as a swimming power. But to Reaney’s coaches and teammates who have known and watched her for years, she was just doing her best, like always.
Skube says that in the days and weeks leading up to the ACC championship “it was never about breaking a record. That wasn’t on her mind and it wasn’t on ours as her coaches. At every practice we just asked her, ‘What can you do in the water today? Can you do this time?’ And she worked hard. But that’s just Emma being Emma.
“As a swimmer,” Skube says, “it doesn’t get any better than Emma. You can’t ask for anything more. She is both a student and a teacher of the sport. She has incredible leadership skills and her leadership is infectious. She’s always encouraging her teammates and reinforcing the coaching.
“As a person, Emma is incredible. She is absolutely the kind of person you want to be around. Her energy and spirit on a daily basis are amazing. And she keeps growing.”
Skube expresses his admiration for the way Reaney has been able to handle both stress and success at big meets.
“She’s no longer in awe of who’s in the lane next to her or how big the event is,” he says. “She’s in the zone. She’s so relaxed that she’s actually smiling on the blocks. I guarantee you no one else is doing that. That’s really rare. But Emma lives in that space.”
Reaney, a 2014 first team Capital One Academic All-American, takes it all in stride.
“Winning the national title and breaking the record doesn’t change anything. I’m just going to keep training hard and getting stronger. I’ve improved every season at Notre Dame and that’s what I want to keep doing,” says Reaney.
Prior to collegiate swimming she had never spent time in the weight room. Part of her work now involves resistance training and Olympic lifting, which she says really has improved her stroke.
“I’m all about stroke-count and I’ve been able to get it down to a really low number, and that’s been a real game-changer for me,” Reaney says of the impact of her strength and conditioning work.
She spent the summer at SwimMAC Carolina in Charlotte, North Carolina, training with a small group of the nation’s elite who are pursuing international and Olympic dreams, including 11-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte. That team typically includes only post-graduate and professional swimmers, but because of former Notre Dame women’s swimming and diving head coach Brian Barnes’ long-term relationship with SwimMAC CEO David Marsh, Reaney was invited to the summer training.
“Brian and I worked together at Auburn and we’ve been in near-constant communication since he started at Notre Dame [in 2008],” says Marsh, arguably one of the top coaches in the nation if not the world. Marsh brought home 12 national swimming titles in 17 seasons at Auburn, coached 47 Olympians from 19 different countries and earned dozens of coaching honors at every level of the sport.
“I was involved in Emma’s recruitment to Notre Dame,” Marsh says. “During the course of her career, Brian and I have worked together on how to develop her both in the NCAAs and as an international swimmer. We were happy to have her down here this summer and she is welcome back here any time.”
The development of Reaney to become a better overall swimmer rather than a targeting a specific stroke or particular event became the focus of Reaney’s training under Marsh’s guidance this summer.
“There was no luck of the Irish down here,” Marsh says with a laugh. “Emma put everything she had – all of her skill as a swimmer and her potential as a human being – into making the national team [for the World University Games in Korea next summer]. She made up her mind and refused not to be a factor in what is arguably her third-best event [the 100m breaststroke].
“She is on track to be a viable candidate for the Rio Olympic Games team in 2016 and has been training with the very people she’ll have to beat in order to make that team. But right now, appropriately, her focus is on her final season at Notre Dame.”
Skube says the swimming coaches back on campus are working to challenge Reaney in new ways for her senior season.
“It’s important this year that we give her goals which are not just related to the 100 or 200 breaststroke events. Many athletes who achieve at Emma’s level are difficult to motivate. They get an attitude and it’s hard to keep them moving forward. Emma obviously does not have that problem but we also want to make sure we’re giving her new things to work on. Right now, it’s, ‘Can we win the individual medley?’
“Even after she advanced to the semifinals of the Olympic Trials in 2012, Emma continued her training in the pool,” Skube says. “She performed very well, but for her it was just another meet. It wasn’t like the season was over for her just because she made the Olympic Trials.”
In Kansas, students must choose between swimming with a competitive club or for their high school. Because Reaney had joined a swim club at an early age, she eschewed school-sponsored competition. Barnes is a former head coach of the swim club in Kansas where Reaney grew up.
“We weren’t all that close,” she says of her early years swimming under Barnes. “But on the first day of [collegiate] recruiting, he called me personally to invite me to Notre Dame. That made a big impression, especially since I’m not Catholic and I wasn’t even really sure where Notre Dame was.”
Reaney put Notre Dame on her list of schools, but not at the top. Like so many future student-athletes, though, “I stepped on campus and knew right away that this is where I wanted to be,” says Reaney with her infectious smile.
According to her, the transition from club to college brought welcome changes.
“With my club team, we would have three-day meets for eight hours each day,” she says. “There were little kids everywhere, the lanes were full at practice and at meets. Here [at Notre Dame] we only swim two or three to a lane in practice, meets are over in two hours, and it’s much more intimate and easier to support your teammates.”
During her Notre Dame career, Reaney has placed great emphasis on the relationships she has developed with other Irish swimmers and divers. Her investment in building those relationships and consciously encouraging that support are among the indelible qualities that led Reaney’s teammates to elect her captain of last year’s team. Skube admits there’s always a concern with team captains, especially when they’re not yet seniors, that they will lose themselves in the “job.”
“Being captain of a team, at this level of competition, comes with unbelievable amounts of responsibility and additional requirements beyond what the already-difficult practice and meet schedule demands,” Skube says. “Captains have to learn how to balance the needs of everyone on the team with their own needs, how to handle conflict between teammates and coaches, how to step into a lot of leadership situations. It’s a really big deal. Not everyone can handle it. The Rosenthal (Leadership Academy) is beneficial for those individuals before he/she become captains of their teams.”
Sponsored by Notre Dame’s Student Welfare and Development department, the Rosenthal Leadership Academy gives student-athletes intentional formation around the theory and practice of peer leadership. Open to student-athletes at the start of their sophomore years, participants are nominated by their head coaches for enrollment in the Academy.
“Emma was a natural choice for captain, even in her junior year, and has natural capabilities for leadership that have been evident her whole time here,” Skube says. “She had a very successful junior year, obviously as good a year as is possible ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢’Â¬Â¦even while carrying all that additional responsibility with the team.”
Reaney’s own perception of her captaincy is a bit different.
“I felt really uncomfortable telling people what they should be doing, especially when some of my teammates were older than me,” she says. “I’ve chosen not to be in the running for captain again this year.”
Even without the title, though, “She still has the qualities of a captain and still shares her leadership and love for swimming,” Skube says.
Marsh relates that Reaney’s passion for representing the Fighting Irish was an inspiration to the younger kids who were a part of the SwimMAC club. During the summer, she brought the spirit of Notre Dame to them in such a way that left a marked impression.
Whether she’s on the world stage, competing in collegiate events or guiding young hopefuls, Emma Reaney is swimming like a champion ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢’Â¬Â¦ and living like one, too.