Junior Pan Pacs: Erin Gemmell’s Journey From Halloween-Costume Admiration to Nationals Achievement (VIDEO)

Erin Gemmell -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Junior Pan Pacs: Erin Gemmell’s Journey From Halloween-Costume Admiration to Nationals Achievement (VIDEO)

Erin Gemmell heads to the Junior Pan Pacific Championships as one of Team USA’s brightest stars. Here is a feature that ran late last month during the United States Nationals.

When Erin Gemmell was in third grade, she dressed up as Katie Ledecky for Halloween. Her father, Bruce, was already coaching Ledecky at Nation’s Capital Swim Club, and the younger Gemmell was 7 years old when she met a 15-year-old Ledecky, already an Olympic gold medalist. So Gemmell borrowed an Olympic team jacket from her older brother, Andrew, and she wore one of his international medals along with a cap and goggles as she walked around her neighborhood.

“Everyone was like, ‘Who are you?’” Gemmell recalled. “I was like, ‘I’m Katie Ledecky. Don’t you know who that is?’”

Nine years later, Gemmell trains with her father, just like Ledecky did in high school, and she has raced with Ledecky at numerous national-level competitions. But in their first final together at a qualification meet, at the U.S. International Team Trials in April, Ledecky dominated the field in the 200 freestyle while Gemmell ended up seventh, missing the World Championships team by one spot and three tenths. That night, Ledecky consoled her.

“I was bummed when I saw that. She’s such a hard worker, such a great person,” Ledecky said that night. “Seventh is nothing to cough at. It was a great swim. She’s had a great year. She’s got a really bright future ahead of her. She’s only 17 years old. I hope she can still feel proud of where she’s gotten to, and I know she’s going to be on many, many teams going forward.”

Ledecky also told Gemmell that she was dropping the individual 200 free from her World Championships lineup, hoping that the move might get Gemmell onto the Worlds team. “It didn’t end up helping me, but it was nice to know that she cared enough to know that it could have impacted me,” Gemmell said. “She was just like, ‘You have to keep trying.’”

Three months later, Ledecky was there to celebrate with Gemmell as the 17-year-old posted the best swim of her life by almost a second. In the final of the 200 free at U.S. Nationals, Gemmell finished in 1:56.14, faster than the bronze-medal-winning time in the 200 free from Worlds and good enough to make Gemmell the 10th-fastest swimmer in the world this year. Gemmell later won the national title in the 400 freestyle.


Erin Gemmell (left) with her father and coach, Bruce — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Sure, the other six finalists from April’s Trials were missing from the 200 free, but the margin between Ledecky and Gemmell was much smaller than the margin between Gemmell and the third-place swimmer, Claire Tuggle.

“It surprised me a little bit,” Gemmell said of her huge drop. “I’ve been trying to go 1:56 for a while. I had some good training in between International Team Trials and now. Of course, it was a little bit surprising, but it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I wonder where that came from.’”

As Ledecky was interviewed by NBC Sports after the race, Gemmell heard herself referred to as “your friend Erin.”

“I was like, ‘Whoa,” Gemmell said. “I guess, but it’s just so weird to me to be so close to someone who’s that fast.”

About a month after her disappointing results at Trials, Gemmell traveled to Europe to compete on the Mare Nostrum series, and she thinks that competing in a lower-stakes international meet provided good mental preparation for the kind of pressurized situations that she will surely see in the future, such as qualification meets. And Gemmell will have one more international opportunity this year as she will be one of the headliners at this week’s Junior Pan Pacific Championships in Honolulu.

Gemmell is already committed to swim at the University of Texas beginning in the fall of 2023, and up until that point, the goals for her swimming career are pretty simple: keep working hard and keep improving, try to lower her best times and refine her turns through months of short course racing. The big target meet will come in late June, when USA Swimming selects its team for the next FINA World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan.

“Obviously next year, the goal is to make Worlds. It was the goal this year, so hopefully I do better,” Gemmell said.

But if there was anything to prove to herself or anyone else, Gemmell accomplished that with her performance in Wednesday’s final. Years after admiring one of the world’s best swimmers and honoring her with a homemade Halloween costume, Gemmell is on the verge of reaching that level herself.

“It’s weird to think about,” Gemmell said of being the 10th-fastest swimmer in the world in her best event. “It’s weird to conceptualize that to me. I’ve never had a NAG record or anything like that. To be among all those super-fast people, it’s just weird.”

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