Esswein enters uncharted water for St. Vincent program

Friday, February 20, 2009
St. Vincent's Anna Esswein will compete in the 100-yard breaststroke this weekend at the girls swimming and diving championships at the St. Peters Rec-Plex in St. Peters, Mo.

PERRYVILLE -- Sophomore Anna Esswein noticed she had accomplished something no other St. Vincent swimmer had ever done when she glanced up at the scoreboard to read her time immediately after finishing the 100-yard breaststroke at the City of Roses Invitational in January.

She had qualified for the state meet.

"I started crying and jumping up and down," Esswein said. "My friends and I were hugging. ... My mom was crying. My dad was crying, too."

Esswein's time of 1 minute, 12.54 seconds was more than a second faster than the required state-cut time in the 100 breaststroke. She had become the first Indians swimmer in the program's brief four-year history to qualify in any event.

Esswein has come a long way since the end of her freshman season. It was last February when she started to become more serious about swimming and set a goal of reaching the state meet the following year as a sophomore. She joined the Gators swim team and began training year-round. She remarkably has dropped more than 10 seconds off her 100 breaststroke time since August and has become one of the top local swimmers.

All in all, it's been both an excellent and exciting season for Esswein, who originally did not plan to swim in high school. She is hoping to place in the top 16 when she competes at the state meet today and Saturday at the St. Peters Rec-Plex. She is ranked 19th out of 44 in the breaststroke field heading into today.

Esswein's father and St. Vincent coach John Esswein said he thinks a top-16 finish is a realistic goal for his daughter, who he said has surprised him during the past year.

"Last year when she told me one of her main goals was to make the state cut in the breaststroke, she was off the radar," John said. "I'm serious. When we finished our high school season, it was a pipe dream. I said that it would take a while. But then by the time the school year started, she started dropping time and I was amazed."

John has been St. Vincent's coach since the team was launched. He has another daughter, Maria, who was the best swimmer for the Indians during the program's first three years and now is a freshman swimmer at Union College in Kentucky.

John said that when Anna was in eighth grade, she, unlike her older sister, did not show much interest in swimming for the high school team or swimming year-round. Anna often would tell him that she planned to join the basketball team.

Anna decided to join the swim team only when her doctor -- during Anna's physical right before entering St. Vincent -- recommended she not play basketball because she had weak knees after tearing cartilage during sixth grade when she grew about 6 or 7 inches.

"Literally, she came home [from the doctor] and her head was hanging," John said. "[And she said], 'I guess I'm swimming for you, Dad, because I can't play basketball.'"

She began swimming at a young age with the Perryville Piranhas swim team, which she practiced with during summers throughout her youth. Still, Anna said that when she was younger, she sometimes found swimming boring and had more interest in other sports, such as basketball.

Anna no longer misses playing basketball. She enjoyed swimming more during her freshman year, even coming to appreciate practices.

"I really like how practices, they are hard and stuff, but once you get them over and done with, you feel really proud of yourself," Anna said.

Anna also liked swimming with her sister Maria, who was a senior last year. She said although she and Maria get along well, swimming on the same high school team pushed her to want to be as talented or even better at the sport than Maria. Anna realized she had the ability to win meets if she worked hard. She certainly wanted to win. At the 2008 Show Me Conference meet that included local teams, such as Notre Dame, Central and Jackson, Esswein placed fifth in the 50 freestyle and seventh in the 200 freestyle.

"At conference, I just really, really wanted a first-place medal and that just made me want to swim all yearround," she said.

Anna, who achieved her conference goal this year by placing first in the 100 breaststroke at the Show Me Conference meet last Thursday, typically trained with the Gators six days a week and twice a day this past summer.

She said the training helped her drop time and increased her endurance. She was swimming the breaststroke in 1:24 during September, so she has taken more than 10 seconds off her time over the past six months.

Anna's mother Mary Esswein said she was somewhat surprised Anna chose to swim year-round. But she was not surprised Anna took her training seriously because Mary already had seen Anna show that type of commitment with her passion for singing. Anna studies voice at SEMO Academy and sings both classical and pop music, Mary said.

"I'm surprised it was swimming," Mary said. "She has matured a lot."

The City of Roses Invitational was one of the meets Anna and John had targeted as a strong opportunity to earn a qualifying time because Anna was in a heat with some other state qualifiers who would challenge her to swim faster, and because Anna feels comfortable swimming in the Central Municipal Pool.

John had the video camera in one hand and a stopwatch in the other watching Anna swim her first state-qualifying time. Later that day when John was driving home from the meet, he pulled his car to the side of the road a couple of times because he was emotional over what Anna had accomplished.

Mary was timing another swimmer in another lane, but that didn't stop her from often glancing over at Anna's lane and cheering on her daughter.

"On the video, you can hear me going, 'Come on Anna, come on Anna,'" Mary said.

Maria was not there because she was at school, but when she heard the news, she showed the same excitement as the other members of her family.

"[Anna] left me a voice mail and I just got done with practice and I listened to it and I was seriously like screaming and I was so happy I was going to cry," Maria said.

Anna already started to talk to her father/coach about the next goal she has set out to achieve.

"She saw the state record [in the 100 breaststroke]," John said. "And she said, 'Dad, that's my next goal. I want to see if I can get to that before I graduate.'"

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