Erin Gemmell practices as icicles hang from the starting blocks at Lakewood Country Club. Credit: Bruce Gemmell

Over the winter, Erin Gemmell figured out the best way to start her morning swim practices was to enter the water as quickly as possible. There was no point in delaying the inevitable by trying to warm up before jumping into the water. Sometimes there was snow on the ground. One time, freezing rain fell from the sky. Gemmell would leave her belongings in the locker room, then run into the outdoor pool as fast as she could.

“Without slipping on the ice on the deck,” she points out.

Gemmell, a 16-year-old rising junior at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart and one of the country’s fastest high school swimmers, doesn’t really like winter. But for the past 15 months, Gemmell and other elite swimmers had to swim in different conditions as the pandemic forced pools to close. In addition to swimming in the outdoor pools at Lakewood Country Club in Rockville and Westwood Country Club in Vienna when she could, Gemmell and about a dozen of her Nation’s Capital Swim Club teammates also swam in Virginia’s Lake Anna or in the water at Gunpowder State Park near Baltimore.

The U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials gave them motivation, even on the toughest days. Starting this Sunday, June 13, through June 20, Gemmell will compete in Wave II of the Trials in Omaha, Nebraska alongside headliners like Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel. (Wave I, for swimmers with slower qualifying times, took place June 4 through 7.) Gemmell has qualified for seven events and will compete in the 50-, 100-, 200-, 400-, and 800-meter freestyle. She also qualified for the 1,500-meter freestyle and 200-meter individual medley, but will not swim either event.

“In the beginning, the most challenging part was getting back into it, because everyone was so out of shape that we would be given a practice that looked like it should be really easy, and then of course it wasn’t,” Gemmell says. “But once we all got back into shape, and then it started getting colder, [the challenge] just became going to practice every day ’cause no one wants to get up at 4:20 in the morning.”

To keep Gemmell and the other NCAP swimmers on schedule for the Olympic Trials, Gemmell’s father and NCAP coach, Bruce, had to tap into his extensive network to find water for the swimmers. While all pools were closed in late April and early May of 2020, Bruce had his swimmers train in open water. They all had to buy wetsuits in order to swim in water temperature that measured in the low 60s or high 50s.

“Some days I would hop in a canoe and go with them and other days I would just stand on the shore and tell them, “Out to that buoy and back three times and twice fast this way and easy that way,'” Bruce says. “I went deep into my creativity bag, which isn’t that deep, to do the best I could to keep it safe and enjoyable and at the same time also some fitness element of it. I mean, it wasn’t real competitive race training. It was more a maintaining fitness phase.”

In June 2020 and over the summer as outdoor pools opened back up, Gemmell swam at several outdoor community pools and one indoor pool in Virginia for NCAP swimmers. Prior to the pandemic, Bruce’s NCAP group trained at the indoor pool at Georgetown Preparatory School. Each week, Bruce sent out a different schedule, and it usually wouldn’t be the same time or the same pool two weeks in a row. Since the end of October, around the time when competitive meets returned, Gemmell and her teammates have mostly been swimming at Lakewood Country Club. They practiced any day the roads were safe enough to travel.

“I think that I’ll definitely appreciate swimming more,” Gemmell says of what she’s learned from the past year. “Because a lot of the times before the pandemic, I would be like, oh, I don’t really want to go to practice today. Like there’s so many more, can’t I just skip this one day, but now it’s kind of like don’t take any practices you have for granted. Whether it’s because the pools are closed or it’s snowing today or something like that.”

Erin Gemmell at Lake Anna for a swim practice Credit: Bruce Gemmell

Gemmell grew up surrounded by exceptional swimmers. Bruce qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1980 and 1984, and her older brother, Andrew, swam at the 2012 London Olympics. Bruce also coached Ledecky at NCAP, a local swim club that boasts some of the country’s top high school swimmers.

It didn’t take long for Gemmell to establish herself as one of those swimmers. In 2018, Gemmell swam the second-fastest girls’ 200-meter freestyle for a 13-year-old in U.S. history at the 2018 Speedo Junior National Championships in Irvine, California. The 200-meter freestyle remains her best event and Team USA typically take the top six people to the Olympics in the event so the team has enough swimmers for the 4×200 meter relay.

Both Gemmell and her father avoid stating concrete goals for the Trials. They both know it’s a distant possibility that Gemmell makes the Olympic team, but this will be Gemmell’s first time swimming in the Olympic Trials. Five years ago, she attended as a spectator, and while the making the Olympics has been a longtime dream, Gemmell doesn’t want to be put extra pressure on herself.

“It’s something I’ve thought about,” Gemmell says of qualifying for an Olympic team. “I kind of get worried about thinking about it too hard because I don’t want to swim really well there and still be disappointed … It’s kind of there, like in the back of brain, ‘You can do that. You can make the team.’ But then the rest of me is like, ‘Shh. We’re just going to do the best we can. Don’t think about it.’”

Bruce takes an even more incremental approach. The goal, he says, is “to perform at a level that is the highest level that you’re capable to perform on a given day.” Due to the way the Trials are set up, swimmers must swim in the preliminary heats, followed by the semifinals, and then finals.

“With the one swim at a time attitude, I think she swims the 200 free … with the idea of, hey, I want to swim at my highest level and make semifinals,” Bruce says. “And then when we make semifinals, we transfer her highest level and make finals, and then lo and behold, you turn around and in the finals in the 200 free, they take six out of the eight finalists. So heck, anytime you give me a 75 percent chance of making something I’ll take it.”

Of course, even if she does make the Olympic team, there’s a chance the Summer Games in Japan do not take place. A medical organization in Tokyo has called for the Olympics to be canceled with the surge of COVID-19 cases in the country, and recently, 10,000 of the 80,000 registered volunteers pulled out of the event, which is set to run July 23 to Aug. 8.

But Gemmell has her eyes on the Trials. She understands that the Olympics being canceled would not impact her as much as it would an older swimmer in their prime. Typically, if swimmers qualify for an international team, USA Swimming gives them everything they need for the trip: T-shirts, bags, jackets, shorts, pants. Gemmell remembers her brother receiving them when she was younger. If the Olympics don’t take place, Gemmell hopes she’ll at least have that.

“While it’s possible that I would make the team, it’s not something that’s probable, so if I would make it, I’d be happy to get the metaphorical T-shirt,” she says.