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York YMCA's Harnish, Small set to make splash on international swim scene

PATRICK STROHECKER
YorkDispatch

Fresh out of the pool after an evening swim on a summer Thursday, Courtney Harnish and Meghan Small sit on a bench at the far end of the Graham Aquatic Center pool.

Dozens of onlookers peer at them through the glass outside the pool area.

Here they are, two high school girls, being asked a series of questions by a reporter. It's a practice that has become commonplace for them. To the others around them, however, the process still attracts a sense of wonder.

After all, anyone who spends any amount of time at the Graham Aquatic Center knows these two swimmers.

Every time they dive into a pool, they're the star attractions — the two most dominant swimmers in nearly any race in which they compete.

They know how to handle a crowd and an interview. Together, the two answer each question with calmness, rattling off their individual swimming accolades, but in a very humble manner. Little seems to faze them — just like in the pool — until they are questioned about one particular object. They suddenly both sit upright, smiles instantly occupying their faces. Thoughts race through their minds almost too fast for them to come out of their mouths in full sentences.

"The box," Harnish says, almost too excited to even discuss what it contains. "There's so much."

"The box," as Harnish and Small both refer to it, is basically a symbol that says "you've made it" on the international swimming scene.

Inside, is a "really nice suitcase," according to Harnish. As if USA Swimming would supply its athletes with anything less. Inside that suitcase comes a wide variety of USA Swimming apparel, from compression shorts to T-shirts to sweatpants to practice swimsuits to racing suits. It ensures that when a national team attends international competitions, the team looks like a team.

On this day, Harnish is wearing one of her practice suits, with the "USA" emblem proudly displayed across the chest of the suit.

"Rain jackets, shoes, I got Oakley sunglasses," Small says about her box.

It's the one time in the entire interview that the two swimmers are practically beside themselves. It's also the perfect reminder that, in the middle of a life that's forced them to grow up quickly and leave much of their teenage years behind them, that even talking about fashion and clothes can trigger their true adolescence.

Coming aboard: Small was too slow. Harnish was offered a trampoline.

Those are the reasons the two wound up swimming for the York YMCA team.

Small, who's from Lineboro, Maryland, and attends Manchester Valley High School, didn't always have the intention of swimming in Pennsylvania. It just so happened that when she was 11 years old, the club she wanted to swim for didn't think she was good enough.

"I went to another club and they pretty much denied me because I was really slow. I mean, really slow," Small said. "So, I met with (York YMCA coach) Michael (Brooks) and he was really open and took me in and saw something, saw potential I guess, and kept me around."

Harnish wasn't nearly as old and a lot more local. She began swimming at the Dover Aquatic Club when she was 6 and shortly before she turned 8, her parents tried to get her to swim at York. Like most parents do with stubborn children, they bribed her with something she wanted.

"I didn't want to come here. I heard it was awful," Harnish said with a laugh, but in all seriousness. "The pool was cold, but my parents decided that they'd get me a trampoline if I tried out at the York Y, so I took that deal and I ended up staying."

Somewhere along the way, they both became exceptional swimmers, too.

Developing dominance: The best way to describe Small when she first arrived north of the Mason-Dixon Line was raw. Brooks saw the potential in her, he just had to coach it out of her. Whatever Small lacked in actual ability, however, she more than made up for in work ethic, a major reason why she's become one of the best female swimmers in the nation at only 17 years old and entering her senior year of high school.

"Her strokes were awful and I have some video that I took very soon after she came to the club that proves my point," Brooks said. "But, she fixed mistakes and she still does. And it sounds like that would be a normal thing for an athlete, especially for a high-level athlete, but it really isn't. It's hard to fix problems because it takes a lot of consistent attention and a lot of consistent work."

Not only did all the extra time in the pool help Small reach her potential, but it allowed her to develop four impressive strokes that make her a dominant individual medley swimmer.

"All four of her strokes have gotten better and better and better, to the point that she's got Olympic Trial cuts in all four strokes and IM," Brooks said. "There aren't very many people who can do that. She doesn't have any one stroke that is crazy-super-amazing-good. She's just got four very strong, national-level strokes and you put them all together and it makes for a very good IM."

Harnish, 16, was always naturally gifted and an impressive swimmer. Her dominance in the pool was noticeable from a young age and she's only gotten better since.

What sets her apart from the rest of her competition, however, isn't necessarily her technique, but, rather, her ability to rise to the occasion in big events. In the rare meets when another swimmer can keep pace with Harnish, it's at those moments when she excels.

"When she's got somebody close to her or side-by-side, she's just iron tough," Brooks said. "She loves to race. You put great stroke, great work ethic and really good, ice-cold racer together and you have such a nice combination."

Take one look at the York YMCA record list and it's littered with the names "Small" and "Harnish." Together, they hold 68 club records, several of which come as part of nearly unbeatable relay teams.

It's not just on the local scene where Small and Harnish tear through the pool, however. You could argue that, as the competition gets stiffer, both raise their talents to new heights. As a freshman at West York High School in 2013-14, Harnish set four York-Adams League records and then broke two more at the state meet in the 200 freestyle and 500 freestyle.

This past March and April at the Y-Nationals, both Harnish and Small won several gold medals and broke national records in the process. It was enough to catapult them onto the international scene, with each earning their shots to swim as members of USA Swimming teams.

International duty: For the first time in her swimming career, Small found herself in a foreign country, swimming in an international event and without her coach.

Participating in the Youth Olympic Games last summer in Nanjin, China — the first time a swimmer from the York YMCA qualified for the games — she finished third in the 200 IM.

Half a world away, Harnish had her own shot to shine for her country, swimming in the Pan-Pacific Games in Hawaii. Separated by the Pacific Ocean, both Harnish and Small made their international debuts at the same time. It was their first step toward fulfilling the lifelong dream of every swimmer — to qualify for the Olympics. Their next step, they'll take together.

Currently, the two are both in Toronto as members of the USA team competing in the 2015 Pan American Games. It's the beginning of a long process of swimming in several elite meets over the next year in preparation for qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Harnish and Small are two of the youngest swimmers making the trip north of the border, but they'll have a chance to learn from a lot of veteran swimmers. Olympic veterans Natalie Coughlin, Allison Schmitt, Amanda Weir and Cullen Jones will not only help them get through the big event, but also show them what it takes to become Olympians.

"It's a good opportunity to learn from the veterans who have been there," Small said.

More than that, Brooks is there with them, serving as one of the coaches for the U.S. team. He's helping with the medley swimmers, meaning that he's dealing directly with Small, who will compete in the 200 IM and maybe the 200 breast. Harnish will swim in the 800 free and possibly a relay.

Those events will also be in each swimmer's repertoire when trying to qualify for the Olympics over the next 12 months.

Growing up fast: Social media, in particular Instagram, serves as the worst enemy for Harnish and Small.

It's a constant reminder of all the events that they're missing out on as teenagers while they put in crazy hours at the pool.

"Instagram is a killer," Small said. "Seeing all the pictures of your friends having fun and you're like, 'I'm at a swim meet!'"

"It's hard, like you see your friends going out," Harnish added. "Don't get me wrong, I definitely have a teenage experience, but sometimes, I am missing out."

During the summer, they can spend up to 26 hours training per week. That includes two to three morning practices, five to six evening swims and then three dryland training sessions. During the school year, the training gets scaled back a bit, but it also means that morning swims start at 5:30, rather than 7:30 during the summer.

Fortunately for Harnish and Small, both of their schools have been understanding when it comes to their training. Harnish, who didn't swim for West York High this past year and won't again this upcoming school year to focus on Olympic qualifying, says that the administration has been very lenient about her missing time to go to events around the country.

For Small, her high school in Maryland gives her the first two periods off each day so she can get in her morning training. She doesn't commute north to train with the other York Y members at the Graham Aquatic Center, but gets her training in by going on pre-school bike rides.

The future: It was obvious just from the onlookers during the interview that both Harnish and Small are looked at like rock stars. They just won't admit it.

Both older and younger swimmers at the York Y look up to them, hoping to one day achieve even a sliver of the greatness that they're destined to have. But they stay level-headed, keeping involved with mentoring programs with younger swimmers and then listening to what the older ones have to tell them about life after high school.

"We have college kids who come back who help us and have helped me greatly with the college process and looking at colleges, and then they can help (Harnish) with that when it comes time for her to do that," Small said. "It's kind of a chain. It passes on. The more experience you get, the more you pass on."

While the Pan Am Games are happening now and the Olympics are a near-future goal, Small is at that point when college is making its appearance on her radar. She's already begun looking at schools and is enticed by California. She's interested in Stanford, California-Berkley, Southern California and Tennessee, but that list will only likely grow.

Harnish doesn't even want to think about college. With two years of high school life remaining, it's easy to see why. The next year of her life she'll commit to a goal that very few swimmers can even dream about. After that, she'll swim for West York in her senior year, but that's as far as she'll look into the future.

For both of them, much of their childhood and teenage experiences were skipped over as they honed their skills to prepare for the upcoming year. While they may have missed the Friday night football games and parties with their friends, what they are about to embark on is the ultimate goal for swimmers. They have a chance to qualify for the Olympics.

"In the end it's worth it," Small said. "...It's an honor to be able to say we represent the U.S."

As the two swimmers finish their round of 20 questions, they head back to the far side of the pool where the rest of the swimmers are huddled. But they don't stop to talk. Instead, they head off to an area of the pool deck where they're alone and get right back to work. They sit down side-by-side and begin their ab exercises.

The Olympics don't wait for anyone.

— Reach Patrick Strohecker at pstrohecker@yorkdispatch.com; follow on Twitter @P_Strohecker