BANGOR, Maine — Emma Waddell has rewritten record books and won numerous awards while emerging as an All-America swimmer competing for Bangor High School and the Bangor Y during the past four years.
But in her final major meet before turning her attention to the collegiate ranks, the prize in her mind has little to do with time or trophies.
Waddell expects to race in several events at the YMCA Short Course National Championships in early April, but of particular importance is the 100-yard butterfly, where she has one of the top qualifying times in her age group and is seeded to reach the championship final.
“I’ve always wanted to make the ‘A’ final because I think it’s cool that they call everybody up on the blocks and they play music and then they go through every girl in the race and say something about them, they go through a little [biography],” said Waddell.
“My freshman year when I finished 11th at nationals, I said to my coach, ‘I want that bio so badly.’”
Waddell is coming off a dominating senior season at Bangor High that she capped off by winning two events at the Class A state championships and sparking two of the Rams’ relay teams to runner-up finishes.
She won the 200-yard individual medley by 7.14 seconds over her nearest competitor with a time of 2 minutes, 4.83 seconds, just two-tenths of a second off the state mark.
Waddell went on to win her fourth straight state championship in the 100 butterfly and shattered the state record in the process with a clocking of 54.49. That effort also eclipsed the pool record at the University of Maine where the meet was held and it topped the 54.52 turned in by Edward Little of Auburn’s Olivia Paione in winning the 100 freestyle.
Waddell held off Brunswick freshman Caitlyn Tycz, who also broke the previous state mark with her time of 54.78.
“Going into that race I wasn’t really nervous, I was actually excited that Caitlyn Tycz was in it because her fastest time was better than mine, she went faster at Y nationals last year and had been doing well throughout the season,” said Waddell. “But I was a senior in high school, the defending champion from the past three years, and I just wanted it.”
And her 54.49 wasn’t good merely by Maine high school standards.
Waddell will continue her athletic career next year at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., one of the top NCAA Division III women’s swimming programs nationally. The Ephs recently won their 13th New England Small College Athletic Conference championship.
Amherst College’s Sarah Conklin won the 100 butterfly at the NESCACs in 56.12 — 1.63 seconds slower than Waddell’s state time.
Waddell’s time also would have seeded her second at this year’s NCAA Division III championships, and it did qualify her to become the first girl from Bangor to earn high school All-America status in swimming — the Rams’ Jason Thomas earned similar honors during the late 1990s.
“I know there were parts of my 100 fly at states that I didn’t do as well as I can,” said Waddell, who last year qualified for separate All-America status through USA Swimming and is on track for similar honors this year. “My walls were good but my turns were slow, and so I watched the video afterward thinking, ‘What was I doing?’ So there’s more work to do and I know I can go faster.”
Bangor girls swimming coach Cyndi Howard sees Waddell’s dedication to self-analysis and training as well as her coachability as pivotal to her success in the pool.
“It’s her tenacity and focus,” said Howard. “She always swims a good practice. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Emma swim through a practice. She’s got a good head on her shoulders, she’s well-rounded, and she’s got goals.”
There’s also Waddell’s ability to cope with the fine line between celebration and condolences that’s part of any elite athlete’s competitive existence.
“Swimming is such a black-and-white sport, you get down to a couple of tenths and you have to be able to accept that sometimes you’re going to lose by a hundredth of a second,” said Waddell, who also has the state’s best times this year in both the 200 and 500 freestyle. “I’ve been swimming for 11 years and that’s still something I have a tough time getting hold of, but you just have to understand.
“Sometimes you win by a hundredth of a second and you can’t believe you just did that, and sometimes you lose by that and it’s really disappointing but it just makes me want to work harder.”
Waddell’s career has been on a steady ascent since she started completing at the club level in El Paso, Texas, where she lived for nine years until moving with her family to Bangor just before entering the eighth grade.
“Swimming in Texas is a whole different world,” said Waddell, the daughter of Brad and Deanna Waddell. “The team I came from was probably over 200 kids, we had three different pool locations and seven or eight coaches and it was well-established, it had been around for 50 years or so.
“It was just so competitive within the state, we had kids qualifying for the Olympic Trials from the El Paso club.”
Waddell’s introduction to swimming in Maine provided a stark contrast.
“When I was 11 or 12 it was good for me to place eighth or ninth at Texas states, and then I came to Maine and everyone was like ‘Oh my gosh, she’s so fast,’ and I’m like, ‘No I’m not,’” she said. “I came here with this completely different perspective, and I think that’s part of what’s helped me during high school season is having the perspective of swimming outside the state because you see kids who are very good that grow up in Maine and think they’re so good and then they go to a meet like Y nationals and place 70th and then they think maybe they should rethink that thought.”
The last four years have represented a successful juggling act for Waddell between her academics — she’s one of the top students in her class and was a 2013 recipient of the Phi Beta Kappa Association of Maine’s Academic Achievement Award — as well as a variety of extracurricular activities in addition to putting in sufficient swimming time between her high school and Bangor Y club teams.
“It takes a lot of balance,” she said, “especially when doing that many hours [swimming]. Doing homework sometimes would become a problem, and getting enough sleep, but it’s worth it.”
Some elite swimmers nationally opt to forgo their high school teams and focus on club competition, but that was never a consideration for Waddell.
“Bangor High School was really strong my freshman and sophomore years, so there was no question I’d swim on the team and we were state champions and that was just an unbelievable experience those two years,” she said. “I guess junior year we had girls who had graduated and I could have looked at just swimming club, but being a part of the high school team was always a good experience and I never once considered not doing it.
“And I don’t think I’d be as good as I am today if I hadn’t swam on the high school team.”