COVINGTON, Ga. — What a year it was for the Eastside High School swim team.
Under the guidance of second-year head coach DeAnna O’Brien, the Eagles produced the most successful season in program history this winter. After winning a regular-season meet for the first time ever in 2018, they raised the bar during their 2019-20 campaign by earning five first-place finishes. They then capped off the year by sending 10 qualifiers to Georgia Tech for the state meet — nine more than they sent a season ago.
Making such a monumental leap in just a one-year span is no small task. So, how did the Eagles accomplish the feat?
“We redesigned the entire program and the atmosphere,” O’Brien said.
“A big thing this year was teaching them how to be a team and what it meant to be a team, and that swimming is a team sport,” she continued. “If you’re here to be for an individual, you do not need to be a part of this team. It is a team sport and that’s what we’re about.”
When O’Brien first took over the program, there was a stigma at Eastside about varsity swimmers who also swam for club teams. Club swimmers were viewed in a negative light, as if their loyalty to another organization equated to a lack of dedication to the Eagles. This mentality caused a rift in the program, stalling attempts to congeal as a cohesive unit as the year unfolded.
Although a notable concern, O’Brien didn’t address it right away. She didn’t want to rock the boat in her first season at the helm when she was still trying to establish herself at a new program. Going into her second year, however, she decided it was time to implement a change in culture at Eastside.
Everything the Eagles did this season— at practice, at meets and in activities outside of the pool — was centered around teamwork.
If one swimmer messed up in a workout, the whole team started over. If one swimmer skipped a practice, the whole team suffered the consequence. If one swimmer was struggling to grasp a new concept, the whole team came together to find a solution.
It didn’t happen overnight. Student-athletes came and went in the first weeks of the season, some attracted to and others repelled by the team’s new philosophy. But by season’s end, the Eastside of old was borderline unrecognizable.
The Eagles are no longer a collection of divisive individuals. They’re a team.
“Last year I had two teams. I had the club team, and then I had the school team. And so this year we had to bring that together where you couldn’t see the divide, and now you can’t,” O’Brien said. “When you watch them now — when you watch them on the pool deck, when you watch them at dryland, when you watch them in those lanes — you cannot see the divide. You just see Eastside swimming.”
Once a bond was established, the results in the pool quickly followed.
Eastside garnered confidence through success against its local rivals in Alcovy, Heritage, Rockdale, Ola and Salem. It then carried that outside of the NewRock area, earning a pair of first-place finishes at Adairsville and one at Morgan County.
Weeks passed, individual records melted away and a buzz grew around Eastside swimming. For the first time since its inception, the program was being viewed as a legitimate title contender rather than a glorified hobby.
“It went from being an after-school fun activity to being a varsity sport,” junior co-captain Austin O’Brien said.
Fellow co-captain and senior Corinne Hanson echoed O’Brien’s sentiments. She noted that while the team was ofttimes perturbed about the new approach early in the year, it didn’t take long to realize they were becoming better student-athletes as a result.
“The days when you’re mad at your teammates because they skipped and now we have to start over. The days where you throw up. The days where you push yourself to be more and to do more than you ever thought you could. Those are the days that you really can advance as an athlete and the days that you really become a better person overall,” Hanson said. “So it was totally worth it.”
Eastside’s 2019-20 season was historic on an individual level as well.
During her freshman campaign, Alice Kennedy became the first female swimmer in the history of the program to qualify for a state meet. This month, the sophomore etched her name into the record books once again by qualifying for two events and becoming a state finalist in the 200 freestyle.
“I was kind of shocked that I made finals because it was never a goal of mine. I was mostly focused on my times, so when I made it, I was just mind-blown,” Kennedy said. “And the experience was crazy because everybody’s so fast. It made me realize, ‘Wow. I’m up there, too.’”
Kennedy hopes to qualify for three events at state in 2021. Coach O’Brien also has lofty expectations for next season, including winning at least five regular-season matches and taking four relay teams —two female and two male — to the state meet.
The nest has been built. The standard has been set. Now, it appears there’s no limit to what Eastside swimming can become in the future.
“Most athletes don’t get the opportunity to see a team grow from how I saw it was to what it has become today,” Hanson said. “I’m so excited for what this team is going to do in the future. I know I’m going to be following it.”