Having Fun and Swimming Fast, High School Star Leah Shackley Looking Forward to Trials

Leah Shackley
Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Having Fun and Swimming Fast, Leah Shackley Looking Forward to Trials

Leah Shackley has a motto that seems to be working pretty well for her, one she plans to follow to Olympic Trials this summer.

A happy swimmer, to her mind, is a fast swimmer. Shackley comes off as immensely gregarious on deck, which might inform why she’s so fast in the water.

So when asked last week as to why in the last two years the Pennsylvania high schooler and NC State signee has gotten so fast, she knows it’s not just about the smile, though the joy doesn’t hurt.

Leah Shackley at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Westmont; Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“Not beating yourself up when you don’t go your best times. Always staying positive,” Shackley said at the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Championships. “Don’t time chase, me and Tom (Grassadonia, her coach at Bedford High School) call it. It’s not good to do that. I saw a comment that said happy swimmers are the fastest swimmers, and I think that’s so true.

“If you’re loving what you’re doing, you’re happy, you’re going to obviously swim fast because you’re in such a good place mentally.”

Shackley is in a good place right now, physically and mentally. In her final high school meet, she upper her total to six state titles at the PIAA Class 2A Championships. In the smaller of the two classifications, she went 50.29 to win the 100 butterfly, 1.64 seconds faster than her state record from last year. In the 100 backstroke, she lowered .85 seconds off her state record from 2023 to 50.76.

She completed three-peats in both events. It’s the second straight year she’s lowered the state record in both. Her winning times were faster than the winners in the Class 3A championships, in the case of the 100 back by more than two seconds.

It’s part of a massive improvement for Shackley the last few years, one that led to the World Junior Championships this year, where she won a gold medal in the 50 fly and a silver in the 100 fly. As a freshman, she went 52.79 in the 100 free at states; she was 49.13 in the winter. Her first PIAA 100 back title came with a time of 55.65, a time she’s slashed by nearly five seconds in three years. Her 100 fly went from 53.98 as a sophomore in 2022 to pushing 50-point.

States holds a warm place in Shackley’s heart. She hails from Bedford, the seat of a county by the same name. The county, nestled 100 miles southeast of Pittsburgh and 100 miles southwest of Harrisburg up against the West Virginia border, has 48,000 residents. Her hometown has less than 3,000.

Bedford is located in PIAA’s District 5, one of the smallest of the state’s 12. Not only was she Bedford’s lone swimmer at states, but only one other swimmer from the district made states – in boys or girls, in Class 3A or Class 2A.

While this month is less busy than some Marches of the past, Shackley was coming off the TYR Pro Swim Series stop in Westmont. Her final PIAA meet remained a priority, though.

“I don’t have to stress as much,” she said. “That sounds funny, but I feel very comfortable here. In the big scheme of things, it can get a little overwhelming when you’re at all these international meets because you don’t know that many people and you’re around all these big names in swimming. So whenever I come here, it’s so nice to have familiar faces and be here, swim fast and have fun.”

The 2A meet was her final short-course meet until she heads to Raleigh in the fall. (It means she’ll eschew Y Nationals, where she won four titles last year.) Her focus shifts to long-course, and given her hometown, that endeavor requires planning. She normally trains at Blair Regional YMCA in Hollidaysburg, an hour drive each way. But the nearest long-course pool is two and a half hours away.

So she’ll shift her training this spring to get some long-course in. She has a long-course meet at Mylan Park in West Virginia in April and will spent two weeks training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. She’ll compete in another long-course meet in Charlotte before Trials.

She’s used to having to adapt her schedule. She usually does morning workouts at the Y, then works in the afternoons at a Hollister outside Pittsburgh before shifts as a lifeguard. With the end of her high school studies just weeks away, she’ll have time to focus on swimming.

Shackley holds Trials cuts in four events, but she and her coaches have decided to drop the 200 fly, focusing on the 100 and 200 back and the 100 fly. Despite the depth in those events, she’s a darkhorse contender to get a spot in Paris.

Shackley isn’t trying to limit herself at Trials. She’s there primarily to have fun, knowing her best chance to get to an Olympics might be four years down the road. But if having fun means she’s doing her best, then the door is open for her to achieve something special.

“I don’t want to put pressure on myself,” Shackley said. “I want to go into it having a fun outlook. No pressure, what happens, happens. I just need to swim fast and I need to stay positive and have fun.”

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