Freshman pursuing Olympic dreams
Leah Shackley has taken a circuitous route to swimming stardom, but through hard work, determination, and an unflinching will to succeed, she has achieved it nonetheless.
Shackley is a freshman at Bedford Area High School, which does not have a competitive varsity swimming team.
Nonetheless, Shackley — a member of the Blair Regional YMCA Tiger Sharks swimming program who competes independently on the PIAA level — is the top seed in two events, the 100 backstroke and 100 freestyle, in the girls division of the District 6 Class 2A meet, which will be held Saturday at the Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School pool.
As a four-year member of the Tiger Sharks program, which competes under the auspices of the governing body of USA Swimming, Shackley, 14, has won two state championships, four western Pennsylvania district championships, and a USA Eastern Zones championship two years ago in a competition held in Webster, N.Y. that included club swimmers from Virginia north to Maine.
She is hoping to earn a spot this spring in the United States Olympic Time Trials by setting a qualifying time in a long-course 50-meter pool. The U.S. Olympic Time Trials will be held in Omaha, Neb. In June.
“It would be incredible — words couldn’t even explain how I would feel if I made it,” Shackley said of the Olympic Time Trials. “To be able to say that I made it would mean everything to me. It would be so cool.”
Finding a 50-meter long-course pool that is open in the spring in order for Shackley to attempt a qualifying time for the Olympic Time Trials figures to be a challenge, though, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Blair Regional YMCA swimming director Tom Grassadonia, who is Shackley’s head coach with the Tiger Sharks and who helped her to find pool space to post District 6 meet qualifying times in two varsity meets at Hollidaysburg and one at Tyrone this winter, doesn’t doubt Shackley’s ability to attain her goal of a Time Trials berth.
“She’s a very good swimmer,” Grassadonia said. “We’re hoping that she can start swimming some long-course meets at 50-meter pools in April to attempt to qualify. Those pools will probably be out of state because there are no long-course meets scheduled for Pennsylvania now, due to COVID.
“She’s still a pretty young kid — she doesn’t turn 15 until July, but she’s pretty special — she’s a talented kid,” Grassadonia said of Shackley, who holds the Hollidaysburg High School pool record of 57.41 in the 100 backstroke and 54 seconds flat in the 100 freestyle. “In order to qualify for the Olympic Time Trials, she has to meet times in meets that are approved by USA Swimming in a 50-meter pool.
“She has to drop about a second and a half off her current times to qualify for the Olympic Time Trials, and that is going to be very hard, but I wouldn’t bet against her,” Grassadonia said. “She has a lot of drive, a lot of talent, and she works really hard. She does all the right things.”
Shackley does a lengthy swim six days a week and physical conditioning two or three days a week, according to her mother, Jessica.
The family also has a pond on their property in the Bedford county town of Rainsburg, where Leah trains during the warmer months.
“When the Blair Regional YMCA was closed for a couple months last spring and summer due to COVID, she went to the Cumberland (Md.) YMCA, and also to a YMCA pool in Virginia, where good friends of our family live,” Jessica Shackley said. “She also swam in our pond here.
“She has been finding ways to get her practices in and keep going,” Rebecca said of her daughter. “She’s a hard worker.”
Leah Shackley, who began swimming competitively for a club program at the Cumberland YMCA at the age of 7, also posted a personal-best time of 57.23 in her favorite event, the 100 backstroke, at a club meet in York last fall.
Leah credited Grassadonia and her other Tiger Sharks club coaches, Loren Hershberger and Alexis Henry, for their valuable support and direction over the years.
“They’ve done a lot for me,” Leah said. “It’s a good dynamic with them. They work very well together. I love the coaches at the YMCA. They’re great.”
She also loves to swim and compete, which has helped her to succeed above anything else.
“I’ve always loved the water,” Leah said. “If you love it this much, you want to keep driving, you want to work hard, and you want to stay positive.”
(At State College H.S.)
Patryck Webster, 5th seed in 500; Brennen Dugan, 5th seed in 100 free; Also competing are Ethan Pacifico, Zion weaver, Ryan Hopkins, Jacob Steinbugl
Megan Dinges, 2nd seed in 100 free; 3rd seed in 50 free; Aubrie Black, 9th seed in 100 free; Aggie Hoover, 9th seed in 500 free; Arya Dahal, 11th seed in 100 fly; Kelsey Lenhart, 9th seed in 100 breast; Medley relay (Hoover, Lenhart, Dahal, Dinges), 5th seed; 200 free relay (Black, Hoover, Dahal, Lenhart), 4th seed; 400 free relay (Black, Dahal, Hoover, Dinges), 3rd seed
Parker Bayard, 3rd seed in 200 IM, 6th seed in 100 back; Brady Flynn, 9th seed in 200 free, 8th seed in 100 back; Tyler Gnegy, 4th seed in 100 fly and 500 free; Joey Grabill, 4th seed in 100 free, 5th in 100 breast; Max Baronner, 6th seed in free; Nolen Tyndall, 7th seed in fly; Medley relay (Bayard, Grabill, Gnegy, Braden O’Connor), 3rd seed; 200 free relay (Baronner, Flynn, Tyndall, O’Connor, 4th seed; 400 free relay (Gnegy, O’Connor, Grabill, Bayard), 2nd seed
(at Hollidaysburg H.S.)
Leah Shackley, 1st seed in 100 free and 100 back
200 free relay (McKinley Strunk, Sam Snyder, Rocco Dzurko, Joshua Stolarski), 3rd seed
Jackson Jeffries, 1st seed in 50 free and 100 free
Jensen Westwrick, first seed in 200 free and 100 fly; 400 free relay (Westrick, Stella Kuntz, Laila Ashurst, Ava Monborne), 3rd seed; Also competing are Abbie George, Cydney Forcellini, Faith Wilson
Jack Soyka, seeded 3rd in 100 fly; Cody Roberts, 2nd seed in 100 breast and 3rd in 100 backstroke; Aiden Wandel, seeded 3rd in 200 IM; All boys relays — 200 medley, 200 free, 400 free — seeded 2nd. Also competing: Cameron Lasinsky, Adam McGlynn, Hunter McMullen, Brandon Dick, Jameson O’Brien, Gavin Kolar, Ben Grata
Ava Allison, seeded 2nd in 200 IM
Madison Coleman, seeded 3rd in 100 free and 1st in 50 free; 200 free relay (Victoria Reese, Sarah E. Hoover, Sarah M. Hoover, Coleman), seeded 3rd; Also competing: Evalyna Aiken
200 free relay (Ryan Bailor, Spencer Dunkleberger, Hunter Gregg, Collin Yaudes) seeded 3rd
Jayce Snively, seeded 3rd in 100 free and 3rd in 200 free