Waynesboro’s Kristen Wagner, 17, began swimming with Shenandoah Marlins Aquatic Club at the Waynesboro YMCA when she was 8 years old.
Earlier this month, she realized her dream as a competitive swimmer.
At the 2019 YMCA Long Course Nationals held at the Eppley Aquatic Center on the campus of the University of Maryland at College Park July 30 to Aug. 3, Kristen qualified in four events: the 50-meter freestyle (27.61), the 100-meter freestyle (1:01.00), the 100-meter backstroke (1:08.71) and the 50-meter backstroke (31.79).
Her time in the 50-meter freestyle qualified Kristen for the C final. She placed 23rd of 24 swimmers in the C final.
“It doesn’t even feel real,” said Kristen, who just began her senior year at Waynesboro High. She is also a student with Shenandoah Valley Governor’s School.
Kristen said she grew up watching others swim high scores at nationals.
“And I just dreamed of being that person one day,” Kristen said.
For the last few years, Kristen said she has been the only member of the Waynesboro YMCA’s SMAC team to compete in nationals. Her swimming at College Park was her sixth time competing nationally, and the first time she qualified for the final session of competition.
SMAC Coach Bill Nicholson said she swam her lifetime best in every race.
“It was an exceptional performance on her part,” said Nicholson, who lives in Fishersville and has coached Kristen for more than two years.
Nicholson said that Kristen brought her A game, and the possibility had always existed that she would crack into the top 24 of swimmers in the YMCA competition, which “is a big deal for anyone anytime.”
“She’s really good. I don’t know if she even realizes it yet,” Nicholson said.
He said she has such high expectations for herself in the pool that she internally challenges herself more than anyone else does.
“And I think she’s finally getting to a point where she’s meeting those expectations,” Nicholson said.
Nicholson has been a swim coach for 25 years, mostly at the college level. Before becoming SMAC coach for the Waynesboro YMCA, he was head swim coach at Virginia Military Institute for 15 years. He said he is not sure he has known another athlete as deserving of competing in the 50-meter freestyle C final as Kristen.
“She’s just one of the most exceptional athletes I’ve ever coached,” he said.
According to Nicholson, Kristen not only is a hard worker and a coachable swimmer, she is “an amazing teammate.”
“She’s just a fantastic all-around athlete, and a great person to work with,” Nicholson said.
He added that he thinks Kristen is “really coming into her own” as a swimmer after having “a really good 2019.”
Kristen said her favorite part about swimming is the people: her coach and teammates.
No matter what is going on in her life, Kristen said she can be sad or angry, but then “I can just go swim,” and she feels better.
She sometimes swims twice a day: once before and once after school.
In SMAC swim practice, Kristen said she swims laps, swims short distances and swims long distances in preparation for competition.
She will compete in the YMCA nationals for short course in April 2020 and again in the long course next August.
“It’s given me a lot of leadership skills,” Kristen said of her participation in SMAC.
And swimming has given her perspective on life.
She said she used to take it all too seriously until recent years when she realized that “swimming is just a sport, nothing more, nothing less.” Sometimes she would perform badly, and she finally learned that was all right.
“That was a hard one for me to understand,” Kristen said.
Because at the end of the day, whether she swam her worst or she qualified for the 50-meter freestyle C final, Kristen said she still has to go to school every day and be a teenager.
Nicholson said that Kristen does well in the pool and in the classroom.
“She’s going to be a great college swimmer,” Nicholson said.
Kristen has no definite plans yet for college, but she is considering pursuing education or journalism.
What she is certain about is that her swimming days are just beginning, and she will swim in college. She has already spoken with a few college swim coaches.
“That’s the goal.”
Kristen said since the nationals competition in College Park she has been thinking about how “this whole journey is about to end.”
This academic year is her last year with SMAC.
In the spring, Kristen will speak at the SMAC end-of-year ceremony where everyone talks about their accomplishments that year.
Kristen said she keeps telling her swim teammates that she probably will not be able to say anything because she will be crying.
“But, I am excited for the future, and whatever it holds for me,” Kristen said.