“My dream is to be an Olympic swimmer,” said Carlee Sanchez-Hegarty, 11, who attends Huber Street Elementary School in Secaucus. She said it with flair and confidence and without any doubt. For someone who took her first swim at five months, the Olympic dream may not be so far off.
Sanchez-Hegarty swims year-round, trains six days a week, and has won a number of trophies, medals, and ribbons. This past summer she placed first in three events at a Bergen County Manager Pool swim meet after being undefeated in her age bracket as part of competitions with the Secaucus Sea Hawks, a local Recreation Center swim team.
But her serious training takes place with the Cougar Aquatics team in Montclair. She has made it to the Junior Olympics four times, and this year for the first time made it to Zones, placing second in a number of races and placing fourth overall in the state of New Jersey.
Before each meet or at special events, Sanchez-Hegarty wears a tiara like Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso.
“It is very intense,” said Sanchez-Hegarty about her regular hour-and-a-half training sessions with the Cougar Aquatics team in Montclair. “I come home from practice very, very sore.”
Sanchez-Hegarty swims all-year round with two to three weeks off in the spring if she doesn’t go to Zones, and two weeks off at the end of August.
On a summer day, you’ll find Sanchez-Hegarty in her parents’ car at 5:15 a.m. to start her training session in Verona, which runs from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. During the fall and winter months, Sanchez-Hegarty balances school and homework against her rigorous evening swim schedule. She trains five days a week in Montclair, has an additional day of private lessons with her coach Jane Sunquror, and gets Mondays off.
“Once you get in the water you just go.” – Carlee Sanchez-Hegarty
During a training session, she said that she might be required to swim up to 2,900 yards or 100 laps.
“Once you get in the water you just go,” said Sanchez-Hegarty.
In order to meet the demands of her training schedule, Sanchez-Hegarty’s parents juggle driving her to each practice and traveling to meets. Her mother Linda Hegarty is familiar with the routine because she was a competitive swimmer until the eighth grade. Both parents work in the Operating Room at Palisades Medical Center.
Beyond an investment of time, the sport also requires an economic investment for the cost of training, competition jackets, and special swimsuits that can run up to $300 and can only be worn 10 times.
Both parents have supported Carlee throughout her journey and have seen her come a long way from the time she first began competing at the age of 7 with the Stevens Institute Sharks.
“It has been an amazing road,” said Hegarty.
Of trying out for the Sharks at age 7, she said, “I was very excited but I was more nervous.”
She swam with the Sharks for two years before trying out for the Cougars, which she describes as a very competitive team.
Sanchez-Hegarty said that swimming has taught her to be determined. Her mother noted that it has taught her daughter respect and discipline.
“The kids she swims with are wonderful,” noted Hegarty.
She has also dealt with moments when she doesn’t win.
“It sometimes can be emotional,” she said. “Once I did a really, really, bad time.” After that race she said she put her headphones on, listened to music, and zoned out.
“You can’t win them all,” said her father Carlos Sanchez. “It is how you approach the next race.”
Because of her schedule, Hegarty-Sanchez doesn’t have much time to spend with friends from school. She starts her homework at the school day’s end and continues in the car on the way to swim practice.
“A lot of my friends now are no longer my friends,” said Sanchez-Hegarty. “They don’t want to hear about swimming at all.” But she has connected with others in school who are also engaged in competitive sports, such as a young girl who is a horseback rider.
Hegarty-Sanchez also likes spending time with animals, like her chocolate Labrador Molly, Chiweenie dog Chilly, and tuxedo cat Kit. She also used to volunteer to help with the cats at the local Pet Smart.
Hegarty-Sanchez will soon start dry land training that involves weights and running to build up her endurance. She plans to swim in college and has an idea of the places that have good swim programs.
She has to wait until she is 15 to compete in the Olympics trials.
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at email@example.com.