The alarm sounds – it’s 5 a.m.
While most high schoolers turn over for that extra 10 minutes of sleep, Angelina Harris and Kyra Sommerstad are on their way to swim practice. The roads are usually clear during these early-morning hours so the 12-minute drive from their homes in Miller Place and Port Jefferson gets them to Ward Melville High School in East Setauket in time for the 5:30 a.m. workout. A quick change and they’re in the six-lane pool.
This is the life of a swimmer whose high school does not have a team. Neither Miller Place nor Port Jefferson have pools or swim teams so Harris travels to Ward Melville west from Miller Place, and Sommerstad comes north from Port Jefferson to practice with the Three Village Swim Club. They compete as independent athletes.
“The life of an independent swimmer is not an easy one,” said Mark Anderson, in his fifth year as head coach of the Three Village Swim Club. “There is a deep commitment to the sport. The athletes have to learn how to manage their time and balance their academics with the demands of the athletic schedule.”
Harris and Sommerstad have done quite well in time management. Both are straight A students and the duo, so deeply committed to such a grueling routine, proved hard work, dedication and getting up early pays off. Both earned Suffolk County titles last week.
Harris, a 15-year-old sophomore, won the 100-yard breaststroke, and Sommerstad, a junior, captured the 100-backstroke and the 200-individual medley. Both girls qualified for the state championships at Ithaca College on Nov. 15-16. Sommerstad earned All-State honors last year after she finished fifth in the 200-IM and sixth in the 100-backstroke.
“We’ll travel with the Section XI team to Ithaca for states,” said Harris, who has competed independently since the seventh grade. “It’s an exciting opportunity.”
Both swimmers have endured a heavy schedule of early-morning practices, a full day of school and more practice in the evening this fall. There is little time for social interaction as both are focused on goals such as winning a state title and getting ready for the Olympic swim trials in Omaha, Nebraska, in the summer of 2020.
“They’re very different swimmers but similar in their drive,” Anderson said. “Kyra is a tall, lean athlete and Angelina is on the smaller side but she’s so focused and determined that she more than makes up for her size. She’s not intimidated by bigger swimmers.”
Harris and Sommerstad have a unique bond. They practice together, push each other to improve times, stroke and technique. They don’t let the stigma of being an independent burden them — they just go out and compete. They use it as motivation. They don’t have a team but they have each other.
“There’s a lot of sacrifice to be a great swimmer,” said Harris, who wants to swim in college and study engineering. “Our day starts early and ends late. We have to manage our time and school can be hard. But you learn to be disciplined. And we lean on each other for support in everything we do.”
Independent swimmers don’t have teammates cheering them on in meets. There is no camaraderie to draw motivation or inspiration. There’s never a hometown atmosphere, no fanfare. Meets are always on the road. It’s them against the world.
“There are many hurdles for an independent but there’s also some advantages,” Anderson said. “They swim with a club and train with several girls in the top 10 in the state that constantly challenge and push them in practice. It is hard to swim fast without that extra push from a team behind you. But it’s also a way to push yourself harder. And self-motivation is required. These girls are a special breed of athlete.”
The two have given up other sports to hone swimming skills. The 5-6 Harris gave up lacrosse and the 5-11 Sommerstad gave up track, where she holds the middle school record at Port Jefferson in the 1,500 meters.
The two live about 10 minutes apart and add to their weekly schedule with three days of dry-land workouts to complete their regimen.
“We run, lift, and do squats to get stronger,” said Sommerstad, who wants to study elementary education in college. “There’s really no down time.”
Anderson sees two student-athletes who refuse to lose.
“Angelina is a top-50 recruit in the state of New York and will be able to pick a top-level swim program for college,” he said. “Kyra increased her conditioning program and put on 10 pounds of muscle and is getting a lot of attention from very good Division I schools. They are two of the best swimmers I’ve coached.”