As a high school and college swimming star, Suzanne Gibson wasn’t afraid of hard work.
“My schedule when I was growing up was ridiculous,” said Gibson, a 2001 graduate of Belleville West. “I was traveling from Belleville to St. Louis twice a day and going to school in between. I was in the water for three hours or more a day.”
Now in her second season as the O’Fallon High girls swimming coach, Gibson is seeking a similar commitment from the Panthers.
“These girls practice every day after school, Monday through Friday, and then two or three times (per week) in the morning before school and on Saturday mornings,” said Gibson, whose former last name was Souders. “We’re practicing eight times a week. It’s hard, but I signed up for this job to make these girls better, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
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The Panthers are gearing up for the sectional meet Nov. 12 in Springfield, which will be followed by the state finals Nov. 18-19 in Evanston.
Gibson said the regular season is about building a foundation for the sectional, where swimmers will have to meet a particular standard to qualify for state. In some instances, they will need to record their best times of the season.
“It would be pretty impossible to expect time drops every single time they get on the blocks,” Gibson said of her girls. “I think that can be mentally draining. So that’s not our focus. We’re training for sectionals. That’s where it matters.”
Gibson, 33, said coaching swimming is unique because there’s no subjectivity. It’s all about individuals dropping their times to the necessary requirement.
“It’s so black and white,” Gibson said. “This is your time, and because of your time, it puts you at this place with our team. It’s not a judgment call. It’s, ‘This is the time you need to get to state. If you make that time, you go. If you don’t, you don’t.’
“In terms of getting these girls to the next level, it makes it very clear where they need to be.”
O’Fallon’s best state contenders are senior Natalie Edwards and junior Sierra Workman.
Edwards will compete in the 200- or 500-meter freestyle and the 200 individual medley at the sectional. Workman’s top events are the 100 fly, 100 breast and 50 freestyle.
“Natalie Edwards is a swimmer we can put in any event and she’s going to compete to win, if not win, no matter where we go, in the whole state,” Gibson said. “She’s one of the best swimmers in the state. She’s definitely the MVP of the team. You can put her wherever you need to put her and she’s going to go.”
Edwards is being recruited by Nebraska Omaha, Providence and others.
“Right now, her focus is definitely on qualifying for state,” Gibson said. “Fortunately or unfortunately, she’s also in recruiting season and she’s taking a lot of Division I trips. It does cut into her practice a little bit. But she’s looking at a Division I scholarship for swimming.”
Gibson said Workman is an “untapped talent.”
“She swam for the local Y team (in O’Fallon),” Gibson said. “If she swam for a club team or got really serious with her training, it’s pretty remarkable to think about where she could go. She’s definitely someone who’s on the cusp of getting those DI offers next year as well.”
Gibson said advancing two swimmers to state “would be awesome.”
“They’re going to have to perform their best at sectionals,” she said. “It can’t even be where they perform OK. They have to do the best they’ve ever done. It’s possible, but they have to be at their best at the sectional.”
Junior Maddie Collins, who competes in distance freestyles and individual medleys, balances swimming with cross country.
“I can’t imagine anything more challenging,” Gibson said. “When she’s not doing a grueling swim practice, she’s doing a grueling cross-country practice. She sometimes will wake up and go to a cross-country meet, hop in the car and come to wherever we’re swimming and race with us. It’s admirable what she does and how hard she works. She’s putting in lots of miles both in the pool and on the road.”
Another junior is Sydney Keefe, who before last year had never been on a swimming team. Keefe competes in sprint freestyle and backstroke events.
“I recognized potential in her after week three (last year),” Gibson said. “I somehow convinced her to swim year-round and she came back to me and now she’s 35 to 40 seconds faster in every event and competing for a varsity spot. This is a year after she literally had never been on a swim team before. I think it’s remarkable.”
Gibson can envision Keefe swimming for a Division II or Division III team.
“She’s got that swimmer’s physique,” Gibson said. “She’s 5-10, tall and slender. She has a great build. It’s just a matter of teaching her all the skills and techniques. You can turn anyone with the perfect body into some kind of sprinter. She couldn’t swim more than two laps at the pool without needing a break last year.”
Other members of the team include senior Rebecca Tamblyn (sprint freestyle), junior Hanna Barnes (sprint freestyle, individual medley), junior Grace Williamson (sprint freestyle, backstroke) and junior Nicole Moran (sprint freestyle, backstroke).
Edwards, Tamblyn and Barnes are the team captains. Gibson said Tamblyn is “a very strong leader” who is “always encouraging, picking up the girls when they’re down.” Barnes, Gibson said, is “rock-solid mentally and physically.”
“She talks herself into anything and just comes into practice and crushes it,” Gibson said. “That strong mentality gets her through these races, too.”
Making it fun again
Gibson signed with Minnesota during her senior year at Belleville West. She soon transferred to Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
“I walked away from the sport after college and didn’t come back,” Gibson said. “I got burned out. I spent so many years and so many hours with my face in the pool.”
When she began coaching last year at O’Fallon, Gibson was relieved.
“All of it came back in a positive way,” Gibson said of her renewed enthusiasm about swimming. “To see these girls excel is so rewarding. I get the same nerves I did when I competed and wanted to win so bad.”