It’s 4:45 a.m. when the screeching pulse of the alarm rips Chris Georgiadis from his slumber.
The junior on the Mars boys swimming and diving team desperately wants to roll over and slip back into a peaceful sleep. But something stirs in him that prevents his eyes from shutting again.
“Competitiveness,” Georgiadis says, explaining why morning after dark morning he answers that early wake-up call. “Honestly, it’s very hard to wake up. It’s very hard to pry those eyes open and roll out of bed. But I like the challenge.”
The feeling Georgiadis gets after winning a 100 breaststroke or swimming a strong leg of a 200 medley relay is what propels him to early morning practices while many of his friends are still fast asleep. Georgiadis was one of five members of the Mars boys swim team that nearly won a state title a year ago. This year, Georgiadis wants to come home with a gold medal around his neck.
To do that, he has to get into the pool at ungodly hours before school — and often get back into the water once classes are over.
Georgiadis is not alone. Swimmers are a different breed because the sport demands time and dedication.
Some of the best in Butler County are more than willing to make the sacrifice.
Georgiadis said he spends an average of 21 hours a week in the pool. Some of the best swimmers in the county spend almost as much time each day in the water as they do at home.
They all do it because they love the sport.
Crack of dawn
Early practices are just as much a part of swimming as the goggles and the caps.
“It’s a little disheartening setting the alarm for 4 a.m.,” Freeport swimmer Becca Dudek said.
It’s a necessity, though, for several reasons.
Time in the pool is the only way to get better, many coaches said.
“It’s an unbelievable amount of time that these swimmers have to spend in the pool,” said Butler swimming and diving coach Dave Bocci. “They are in the pool six days a week and have double swim practices on some of those days. It takes a certain type of individual to do that.”
Time is so important because swimming is a sport of strength and precision.
Many swimmers log nearly four miles a day in the water — but it is a swim with a purpose.
“It’s very important to build consistency,” Bocci said. “It’s very important to build good habits and stamina and the only way to achieve excellent results is to put the time and the work in.”
That means early mornings and late evenings.
To Mars senior Maggie Gruber, who has won four WPIAL titles and four PIAA championships, it just goes with the territory. It’s just part of the job description.
“It’s definitely a lifestyle,” Gruber said. “You have to be dedicated to be in this sport.”
Gruber had to give up soccer — another one of her loves — in the seventh grade and other extra-curricular activities to focus solely on swimming.
To do anything else could have compromised her ability to win those state titles and earn a scholarship to Virginia Tech.
She spends a little more than an hour in the pool in the morning three days a week and two more hours in the water after school.
Gruber doesn’t groan much anymore when her alarm buzzes in her ear at 4:30 a.m.
“I just taught myself, ‘This is your routine,’” Gruber said. “‘This is what you have to do to achieve what you want to achieve.’”
For some, logistics make logging practice time even more difficult.
No pool in the school
Each day, members of the Knoch boys and girls swim teams load onto a bus to drive 20 miles to the Butler YMCA for practice.
There is no pool on the Knoch High School campus, so the Knights are forced to find other accommodations.
“You look at some of the schools in Butler County like us and Freeport and Mars that don’t have their own pool,” said Knoch swimming coach Rick Hassler. “We’ve still found a way to be successful.”
To Hassler, the reason why is easy to ascertain.
“They are a great bunch of kids, very coachable and very dedicated to the sport of swimming,” Hassler said.
Knoch swims its home meets at Butler High School. Mars practices and holds its meets at Pine-Richland High School.
Freeport, though, is relegated to the status of road warriors.
The Yellowjackets have no home meets. They are nomads, traveling all over Western Pennsylvania to compete. That puts quite a strain on coaches and athletes alike.
Participation in swimming has taken a dramatic up-tick in recent years. The Olympics and the success of prominent swimmers like Michael Phelps have ballooned the numbers of people interested in aquatics.
The demand for pool time will only increase, Bocci said.
“Pools are used a lot already. Swimming really is an incredible sport,” he said.
No matter what the challenges are for swimmers — early mornings, long practices, little free time — all share one important thing.
The love for the sport.
“If you miss a practice, you just don’t feel good,” Georgiadis said. “You just don’t feel good about yourself. That’s another thing that gets you out of bed so early. It’s fun and you love it.”