Ella Eastin Pushes Past Heartbreak, Health to Finally Break Through

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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By David Rieder.

Ella Eastin was in drug testing when she found out. A text from her coach, Greg Meehan, delivered the news: “It’s official. You’re in.” Eastin, after an hour of uncertainty and weeks of preparing for heartbreak, had qualified for the Pan Pacific Championships, her first time representing the senior U.S. national team at a major competition.

Twenty-seven days earlier, Eastin was in the midst of what she calls the best training of her life when all of that came to an abrupt halt. She was diagnosed with mononucleosis, an illness which zaps someone of all their energy. For two weeks, she was out of the pool.

A few days after she finally returned to training, she still wasn’t feeling well, and more time out was required. When she finally got back in again, she only had days to go before Nationals, the major selection meet for all American teams in both 2018 and 2019, and she could swim little more than a meet warmup. Three or four days before the meet, Eastin finally attempted some pace work.

When she flew down to Irvine, Calif.—her hometown—for the meet, she had resigned herself to reality: She probably wasn’t going to have enough stamina to put herself on the Pan Pacs team.

Horrible timing for a devastating illness and horrible luck. This year, 2018, was supposed to be Eastin’s year. In 2017, she had been disqualified in the 400 IM at U.S. Nationals after she had seemingly qualified for the World Championships with a second-place finish. On that night, Eastin said, “I felt like something was stripped of me and I had accomplished what I needed to.”

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Eastin after failing to qualify for the 2017 World Championships team — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The heartbreak wore on her, Eastin admitted. Two days later, she couldn’t keep pace with Melanie Margalis and Madisyn Cox in the 200 IM final, and she ended up third.

But then she had rebounded in absolutely stunning fashion during the collegiate season. She set short course American records and won NCAA titles in all three of her individual events, the 200 IM, 400 IM and 200 fly. She finally stepped out of the shadow of her Olympian teammates, Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel.

Most importantly, she looked so supremely confident that it seemed a given the success would translate into the meters pool.

Had Eastin not gotten sick, maybe she would have dominated Nationals. But in her compromised state, she swam the 200 fly on the first morning of the meet and finished 12th in 2:10.81, more than two seconds off her lifetime best. She scratched the consolation final.

The next day, she made the call to pull out of the 400 IM. Take two more days to rest, Eastin and her coaches decided, and then give it all she had in the 200 IM on the meet’s final day. Eastin knew that was the right decision, but it didn’t make it any less gut-wrenching.

“Having to step back was really, really difficult, and I never would have been able to guess that I’d be so upset not being in the 400 IM,” Eastin said. “That’s a beast of a race but I guess something that I really have taken ownership of.”

During that women’s 400 IM final, Eastin was on deck, but instead of a racing suit, wearing a black Stanford t-shirt and sunglasses, screaming and watching helplessly as Stanford teammate Brooke Forde stunned the field with a second-place finish.

There was no use being bitter that she didn’t have an opportunity to go for that spot. Eastin could only be thrilled for Forde and practice patience.

But finally, in her one and only chance to qualify for Pan Pacs, fate would be kind to Eastin—a rarity in a long course championship meet. She would get into the 200 IM final, and she would settle into third place, behind Kathleen Baker and Margalis, at the halfway point.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Normally, Eastin might be tracking those two down over the breaststroke and freestyle legs, but this time, she was losing ground—but no one else was catching her. She ended up third in 2:10.84—amazingly, her second-fastest time ever and five-hundredths faster than her finals time from Nationals last year.

Afterwards, Meehan suggested that Eastin warm down, just in case she had gone fast enough to qualify for Pan Pacs. Third-place finishers in Olympic events could be added to the team, prioritized based on world rankings, but only if there were spots open after all second-place finishers plus the top four in the 100 and 200 free had been added.

Eastin had planned on warming down anyway, “just to filter my thoughts.” But her 200 IM was good enough for ninth in the world rankings, the highest of any female third-place finisher at the meet. After a month that “has all been a whirlwind,” Eastin was shocked. Finally, she had made it.

At the end of the session, Eastin was announced with 57 other swimmers as a member of the Pan Pacs team. The cheer for her name was among the loudest, with around 40 local friends and family members coming to Woollett Aquatic Center to support her.

“They were going to have my back no matter the outcome,” Eastin said. “That gives me a lot of peace when I step up to the blocks, knowing that no matter how I swim or what I do, they’re going to be there to love and support me. I’m just—I don’t know. I don’t have a lot of words. It’s been my goal all year to do this, but because of all the ups and downs, it’s kind of surreal.”

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Eastin (right) hugs Melanie Margalis after the 200 IM final – Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

At Pan Pacs, Eastin will aim for a spot on her first World Championships team, needing a top-two time among Americans based on the combined results of that meet with Nationals. Beating out Baker (2:08.32 at Nationals) or Margalis (2:09.43) in the 200 IM might be challenging, but how about the 400 IM, the event Eastin said she “has taken ownership of?”

She could swim any event she wants at Pan Pacs, but Eastin indicated she still wasn’t sure if her physical condition would allow her to attempt the grueling 400 IM. The aftereffects of mono can linger, and she still can’t train fully for the 10 days in between meets.

“That would really shock my body in the wrong direction,” she said. “More maintenance, more hope and more faith that everything I’ve done up to this point is only going to help me.”

Asked to compare her experiences seeking to qualify for Team USA in 2017 and 2018, Eastin laughed.

“My swimming career is like the farthest thing from as planned,” she said. “Something always seems to come up.”

This time, against all odds, Eastin wouldn’t let that something stop her. She mustered the physical and mental strength required, and after her monthlong medical odyssey, she is going to the very destination that she had been aiming for all along: Tokyo.

Video Interview with Ella Eastin:

5 Comments

5 comments

  1. Betsy Luminais

    Smart call on scratching the 400! Well deserved place on the team! I hope she recovers quickly and all that hard work she’s done kicks in!

Author: David Rieder

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David Rieder is a staff writer for Swimming World. He has contributed to the magazine and website since 2009, and he has covered the NCAA Championships, U.S. Nationals, Olympic Trials as well as the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. He is a native of Charleston, S.C., and a 2016 graduate of Duke University.

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