She had the attention of some of the sport’s most successful and highly regarded institutions.
But of the over 50 colleges that were interested, Paige Hetrick narrowed her list down to five.
NCAA regulations limit athletes to five “official” visits, so Hetrick — who has the talent and résumé to swim at any Division I university — chose Texas, Kentucky, Auburn, Penn State and Louisville.
After her trip to Louisville, however, the calls from the other college coaches stopped. The 17-year-old had made up her mind.
“Louisville, it felt like none of the rest,” Hetrick said in an interview with the Era last week. “When I went to the schools after that, I just knew that (Louisville) felt like home. The atmosphere of the team was just unreal. I connected with them and I felt safe and I felt happy. At the other places I didn’t get that feeling. Louisville felt like home and a place where I wanted to be.”
There aren’t many athletes from Bradford who have the talent to gain the attention of D-I schools, let alone some that are in the running for an NCAA championship on a yearly basis. Then again, not all athletes are Paige Hetrick.
Hetrick, a senior at Bradford Area High School, won four national YMCA championships in August in the 200-meter backstroke, 100-meter backstroke, 50-meter freestyle and 100-meter freestyle. Her times in the backstroke races were Olympic-qualifying and have earned her a trip to Omaha, Nebraska, next June for the Olympic Trials.
She swims for the Bradford Family YMCA, an opportunity that has given her the chance to travel around the country and compete against some of the top swimmers in her age group.
Her coach for the better part of the last 12 years, Caren Barnes, is satisfied to see Hetrick’s hard work and dedication pay off with a big-time scholarship.
“She has a lot of natural abilities,” Barnes said. “But it doesn’t matter how good you are naturally, you have to work hard. Probably since she was 11 (years old) she’s been training five days a week.
“We don’t do any extras. It’s kind of amazing how good she is that she doesn’t do doubles that a lot of kids before going off to school or some of that high intensity. But once she’s in the pool, she works hard every single day.”
That decision to swim for the YMCA, and not for Bradford HS, allowed Hetrick to showcase her talents on a much more national stage — a decision that certainly paid off with the amount of attention she received from college coaches.
“She and I talked about it and I said, ‘These are your opportunities. If you want a scholarship or if you want to go to a big (college), you have to be able to go to US meets and bigger meets,’ Barnes recalled. “She decided that she wanted to be able to be at that extreme national level with US Swimming. It’s kind of hard to do both because you’d have to miss some high school meets.”
Hetrick, too, credits some of her success to not being overworked and said that most swimmers her age and at her level have much more “yardage” in the pool than she does.
Even still, don’t take that as a sign of her lack of dedication or love to the sport.
“I broke my wrist and had mono in the last couple of years and I had to take time off of swimming, and I just wanted to be back in the pool as soon as I could,” she said. “I swam with a cast on my arm for two months because that’s just what I had to do.
“Swimming is a just a big part of who I am. I can’t imagine my life without it.”
Hetrick will join a Cardinals program that finished third at the ACC Championships last year and went on to record a fourth-place finish in the Women’s NCAA Championships, the highest place in program history.
“I think she has a lot of areas that she’ll be able to improve upon and become faster because she isn’t overtrained like a lot of swimmers,” Barnes said. “Swimming is one of these sports where a lot of kids put in four or five hours and they swim in the morning and afternoon and we only swim in the afternoon. To be as successful as she is not doing that… she is a pretty amazing person.”
Like nearly all swimmers at her level, Hetrick swims year-round. While that has limited her on some endeavors outside the pool, she has no regrets in how her athletic career has transpired.
“I’m a multiple sport athlete, and I can do a lot of other sports, but I had to give up those opportunities to swim,” she said. “I don’t regret it, but sometimes I do wonder if I kept playing softball. I played travel softball and I loved it, but I had to decide what was better for my future and swimming was it.”
Hetrick has made her biggest mark in the pool in the backstroke. Her qualifiers for the Olympic Trials were in the 100 and 200M of the event.
Just last week she broke her own YMCA league record in the 100-yard backstroke — again — with a time of :55.66.
“I have a competitive side to myself now, but I like to say that I’m racing the clock more than the people around me,” Hetrick said. “It keeps the pressure off and keeps it fun.”
But there have been plenty of races at the national level where she is racing side-by-side with a girl who may be just as talented as she is.
So what separates her from the competition, especially in those tight races that are usually decided in milliseconds?
“You’ve got to want it,” she said. “Obviously it comes down to the training and the time you put into it, but even if you train, you have to want it. That’s the hard thing. When you’re racing someone neck-and-neck and it’s coming down to the finish of who’s going to win, it’s about who wants it more. That’s who’s going to win.”
And if you think Hetrick has gotten conceited around the pool because of all the success she’s had over the past decade, well, you can forget about it — according to Barnes.
“She is very good about team culture; she really wants to see everyone gel and that we all cheer for each other and she’s done a lot to try to promote that within the whole team,” she said
“A big thing for her is becoming a leader. And she does that with her own group, but with the younger kids as well. She mentors them.”
Hetrick’s next big event will be in Atlanta at the USA Junior Nationals in December. There, she will compete against the country’s top swimmers under 18 in an attempt to add another medal to her trophy case.
In the meantime, Hetrick’s final season representing the Bradford YMCA with the Barracudas is underway.
Even with a D-I scholarship secured, she is still as motivated as ever to do her best in and out of the pool — while setting some records along the way.
“At the end of the day I can say I’ve wanted it, I’ve always wanted it,” she said. “I think that’s the key to succeeding at anything. On the days you feel your worst, you have to come to practice because you want to.
“You have to be there everyday because you want to and not because it’s a chore. It has to be because it’s something you want to do. The second you become content, is the second you stop improving. You have to want to be better everyday.”