Sweeney’s run to state an improbable one

Photo by Corey Stolzenbach/The Herald
Northeast Dubois junior Hailey Sweeney is the first female swimmer in Jeeps history to qualify for state.


DUBOIS — She last swam when she was a freshman. Her sectional performance was nothing noteworthy. A volleyball struck her throat when she was a sophomore, snapping her head back and jerking it so hard that she received a concussion. That concussion kept her out of the water and her grades dipped, too. She got back in the pool her junior year, getting some practices in before she moved because of her father’s new job location. She attended her third school since her freshman year.

The next month-and-a-half is a sequence of events that became a far cry from what she dealt with her first two years. What was about to unfold before everybody’s eyes was a long shot playing out in real life, a reality that even the biggest dreamers and the most vivid of imaginations might struggle to conceive.

This is the story of Northeast Dubois swimmer Hailey Sweeney, who went from being just another swimmer to one who rewrote the record book and made history.

Sweeney began swimming around the age of seven. She competed at Hobart when she was a freshman, swimming with a broken thumb in the 200 freestyle at sectionals and getting last place in the event with a 2:09.49 time. Sweeney also got last in the 100 butterfly with a 1:05.51 time. The toughest part was when she got the concussion and couldn’t swim as a sophomore at Wheeler. The junior returned to the pool earlier this season, but her time swimming for Wheeler would be short lived. Father Tim, a quality engineer for U.S. Steel, saw his job transfer over. She moved four-and-a-half hours away and joined the Jeeps swim team during holiday break.

“It’s small, but everyone’s really friendly,” Hailey said of Dubois. “It’s like a big family environment, and everyone definitely cares for one another.”

She may have had a pair of eighth place finishes during her first outing at sectionals, but it didn’t take long for Northeast Dubois swim coach Kendra Friedman to notice the potential Sweeney possessed.

“She’s a natural swimmer,” Friedman said. “She’s built like a swimmer. Her stroke is very good. She knows how to race. So, as soon as honestly that first practice that I saw her get in the pool, I kind of knew, “Okay, we have something to work with here.’”

If swimmers in Southern Indiana didn’t know who Sweeney was before she moved, they were about to. She won two events Jan. 13 at the Pike Central triangular, and another two Jan. 20 at the Heritage Hills triangular. The Jeeps had a swimmer on her hands.

Northeast Dubois held Senior Night Jan. 28 against Vincennes Lincoln. Friedman set a record in 2008 in the 50 freestyle with a 25.98 time. The 2011 Northeast Dubois graduate held the record for more than a decade, but on that night, she kissed her record goodbye to the new kid on the block. Sweeney swam a 25.85 time, putting her name in the record books just like that.

“That was amazing,” she said. “That was the best feeling ever.”

Friedman was happy for Sweeney. It didn’t bother her at all that her record had fallen.

“I always tell these kids, ‘I have a couple of records on the board,’ and I say that records are meant to be broken,” she said. “So, I encourage them to go out and try to get them and it was actually the best feeling to have her break mine. I couldn’t be happier for her. She works really hard. She deserves it. So, it made me feel good.”

Sweeney has also undertaken some superstitions when it comes to the pool. She wore gray sweatpants, tie dye crocs and a Dubois sweatshirt before she went out and broke the record. Sweeney used to eat Subway before getting into the pool, but she craved Jimmy John’s before she broke the record. She’ll have a ham sandwich with lettuce and mayonnaise from the latter. Sweeney said the superstitions began this year.

Why she has these superstitions, she does not know, but she feels like they work.

“If I do something and I do good, then I feel like if I do it again, I’m going to do just as good,” Sweeney said.

There is one instance, though, where she didn’t follow through all the way on her superstition, but it didn’t hurt her. Sweeney didn’t have time to finish her sandwich, but swam a time of 25.21 in the 50 freestyle Feb. 8 at the Jasper sectional. Sweeney had previously made it to state in Age Group, but never in high school.

Sweeney did not know what had just happened, but then she looked at Friedman.

“(Friedman) was beaming,” she said. “She had the biggest smile on her face.”

Then she looked at the board. Sweeney had won the race, becoming the first female, and only the second swimmer, in Northeast Dubois history to qualify for state.

“As soon as I saw my time on the board, it was amazing,” Sweeney said. “Just making (Friedman) proud and making myself proud and I know that my parents (Tim and Shelly) are watching. They’re proud. It didn’t sink in until after the meet, honestly.”

“To see us actually get there is pretty phenomenal,” Friedman said. “It makes me feel like what we’re doing in the pool actually matters and we’re working hard. To me, that’s probably the best part about it.”

Sweeney also swam the 100 freestyle with a 56.58 time that tied for second. Friedman thought Sweeney could excel in the 50 freestyle despite it being a hard event and the tiniest mistake can prove costly. The 50 freestyle also isn’t one of endurance. She said Sweeney does have endurance, but not to what it could be. Friedman praised the start and the turn that her swimmer has — components needed for success.

She will make the trip Friday to Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis to compete in the preliminaries with a chance to advance to the finals on Saturday. Friedman thinks Sweeney can do anything she puts her mind to, but her biggest concern with Sweeney is more mental than technique.

“As long as she stays out of her head, that’s the biggest thing,” she said. “That’s really what I have to preach to her. She is a big thinker. So, sometimes you just have to turn your brain off and go. Really, what I’ve been trying to tell her is, ‘Just turn your brain off and just do what you know how to do.’”

Nerves have always gotten to Sweeney, even before she swam for the Jeeps. Different thoughts rush through her head, as she asks herself if she wants it bad enough or if another swimmer is going to beat her. However, all of that goes away when she steps onto the block.

As for her Jimmy John’s superstition, she now has a new direction to take it in following her success at Jasper.

“I’ll leave a bite,” Sweeney said.

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