HOLLIDAYSBURG, Pa. (WTAJ) — Leah Shackley is not like every other 16-year-old, she isn’t even like most swimmers in the country.
“If ever an athlete of any sport wants to say, who should I who should I look at? Who should I try to be like? Look at some video of Leah Shackley swimming,” said Tom Grassadonia, “and if you can do it, you’re going to be really good.”
Tom Grassadonia works for Allegheny Mountain Swimming, a division of U.S. Swimming. He’s been Leah’s coach for a number of years and recognizes he never worked with someone like Leah, even if she sometimes doesn’t realize her talent.
“We have definitely worked to my confidence,” Shackley said. “That was one of the goals this year. I feel I, I sort of know who I am now in swimming and who I can be. And so that has helped with my confidence and not being so shy. And I think that has helped me in the water as well.”
In June, Shackley is heading to the Phillips 66 Nationals, the U.S. Swim championships. It’s the highlight of what’s been an impressive 2023 for the Bedford teen. She won two PIAA state titles, four YMCA National Championships and set three national records, and she’s done all of that since March.
“I didn’t just wake up and start swimming fast,” she said. “We have taken my training, ever since January, (and) we’ve upped it, and so I know what I’m putting in. I’m now getting out due to that.”
Early in May, Leah recorded a 2:08:56 in the 200-meter backstroke, the second fastest time by a U.S. woman this year.
“We’re at a point now where tenths of seconds are huge,” said Grassadonia. “And she’s still dropping half a second, a quarter of a second, two seconds.”
But Shackley wasn’t born a fish, necessarily, admitting there were “rough patches” when she started learning to swim as a child. In 2020, when pools closed down by the pandemic, she started swimming in her family’s pond, laying out lane lines and a board to turn.
“There’s fish, we’ve seen snakes, we’ve seen turtles,” she laughed, realizing just how insane swimming in her family’s pond sounded.
But this experience almost flipped a switch.
“When she was doing the pond, she wasn’t serious, ‘I’m going to swim in the U.S. trials,'” Grassadonia said.
But after a strong performance at the PIAA meet, Shackley got serious. Began working with Grassadonia one-on-one and the rest is history, but it meant big changes.
Shackley enrolled in cyber school, leaving the high school experience behind.
“That has definitely took me time to like, let go of,” she said.
And almost every day her schedule is planned out in great detail.
“I wake up anywhere from 6 a.m. to 6:30 a.m.” she said. “My dad makes me breakfast almost every day.”
She goes to her 97-year-old neighbor’s house and help her our before driving to Hollidaysburg to practice. She swims for more than 2-hours, then eats, lifts, and studies.
“Then from there I either go home, or I’ll go down to Cumberland, Md. and I’ll do a double with my training partner,” she added.
Every day its rinse and repeat.
“It’s a lot,” she admits. “It really is. And my family took time for them to adapt to it, you know, because I’m not really home much.”
But the cost of her sacrifice has changed her life. Two years ago she swam in the U.S. Olympic Trials and this year’s nationals in June will seat the U.S. Swims national team, Pan-American team and Junior National team.
“She’s already swimming top eight times,” said Grassadonia. “There’s a lot of work and a lot of stuff going on there, But that’s you know, that would be where we want that opportunity, you know, to be able to swim in finals.”
June’s meet will be at Lucas Oil Stadium, and serves in a way as a tune-up for next summer’s Olympic trial. While Shackley, modestly tells you she hasn’t thought about her swimming future much beyond her collegiate commitment to NC State, it can be hard not to daydream.
“I want to I want to say, no, I’ve not thought of this. I’m so cool,” said Grassadonia. “The fantasy’s there but there’s it’s you can only get lay in bed and put your head down on the pillow. Think about it. But you got to wake up tomorrow morning. You got a lot of work in before you could even even think about that.”
“It’s not there yet” Shackley said, smiling. “That’s why you just have to take it day-by-day. And that’s really what I do. You know.”