Record-setting Kaneland swimmer has eye on Olympics
To say Kaneland's Leah Hayes is fast in the pool is a gross understatement.
She's positioning herself to become an Olympian someday, and the way things are going, that could be sooner rather than later.
Case in point: At the 2021 IHSA state girls swimming and diving meet at FMC Natatorium in Westmont, she logged a 1:56.62 in the 200-yard individual medley in the preliminaries. That was almost 4 seconds faster than the runner-up, Schaumburg senior Nina Mollin (2:00.60).
Hard to believe, but she actually improved on that time in the finals, racing a state-record time of 1:56.38 -- a full 5 seconds faster than Mollin (2:01.83).
She also was the state champ in the 100 freestyle with a time of 48.34 seconds.
Whew. That's fast.
"It was wonderful to be able to represent my high school and get my name down in the record books," Hayes said. "(The meet) was what I anticipated. On the blocks, you could hear a pin drop."
But as they say, that was then, this is now. She won't be participating in this weekend's IHSA state meet, as she's busy with other things.
Like the FINA Swimming World Cup 2022, that was in Indianapolis at the begnning of November.
There, representing the United States, she took fifth in the women's 200-meter medley with a time of 2:08.10, just ahead of Canada's Kelsey Lauren Wog (2:08.54). Remember, meters are slightly longer than yards, hence the time difference.
That was a big meet for her. Not only was that a personal-best result, she did the same in the 50 freestyle (25.72 seconds), 100 freestyle (54.31), 50 breaststroke (32.82), 100 breaststroke (1:09.45), 100 medley (59.36) and 50 butterfly (27.82).
Those are impressive numbers, but they are just numbers. There is more to Hayes than that. For instance, back in September, Hayes was named to the 2022-23 U.S. Swimming national team in the 200 individual medley.
That's a far cry from when she started swimming in the lower grades and her evolution as a competitive swimmer to today, as a member of the Fox Valley Park District Riptides, under the watchful eye of coach Nancy Hooper.
It also seems like a far cry from her record-setting performance at IHSA state last year, where she represented Kaneland. But here's the thing: Kaneland technically doesn't have a swim team, but she could enter as an individual athlete. Kris Carson wasn't her coach per se, more like a school representative on the deck of the FMC Natatorium. She was also a liaison of sorts between Hayes and Hooper, who wasn't allowed on deck.
"The biggest thing I did was help her manage her time, when people wanted to talk to her between events," Carson said. "There were a lot of other swimmers on the deck wanting her autograph and to meet her."
Swimming has taken Hayes all over the country and, really, the world … Croatia, Hungary, Germany and Canada, for starters. But at heart, she's just a kid, going to her classes at Kaneland, cooking and baking at home and hanging with friends and family.
Not surprisingly, she's a goal-setter, too, planning to swim in college, though she hasn't decided where yet, and then the Olympics.
"I believe anything can be made a reality," she said. "I feel that if I continue to work hard and focus in, I will be able to make it possible."
She also has a soft spot for the swimmers, including at this weekend's state meet, who want to be her caliber someday.
"For me, I like to set large goals and always be optimistic and stay determined and continue to work hard, even when it is difficult," she said.
"I go through occasional moments of self-doubt, but I know how to get a grip and know that I have trained for this and when I put in the hard work, I know the goals can be accomplished."