Sierra Gillan put in a lot of miles to reach a destination far from home.
The Delaware Valley senior and reigning Times-Tribune Girls Swimmer of the Year dedicated herself at practice and meets, traveled more than an hour away to train at the highest level and, after a summer of uncertainty because of the coronavirus pandemic, she dove at an opportunity to compete in college at the University of Tampa. She is still maintaining a challenging daily schedule, hoping her last season in high school eventually begins.
“I am really looking forward to hopefully having a season, districts and a state meet,” Gillan said. “I really want to make a championship final race at states. I want our team to win the league and district championships.
“But really, I am just trying to have hope that it works out. Especially because it is my senior year and my last one to compete in high school.”
Already an accomplished All-Region swimmer at Delaware Valley, Gillan stormed the postseason last winter with eye-opening performances.
She grabbed the attention of coaches, who took more than a double-take at their watches after she touched the wall in a time of 56.46 seconds to win the 100-yard backstroke at the Les Richards Championships. It was her second gold medal of the meet after also taking the 100 butterfly in 56.65. Both established meet and pool records.
Then, at the District 2 Class 3A Championship meet, Gillan won gold medals in the 100 fly, with a time of 56.60 seconds for a meet record, and the 100 breaststroke in 1:06.33. That punched her ticket to the PIAA Class 3A Championship meet, where historically, District 2 champions find the competition very strong. Gillan wanted to get into the top 16 finishers in the 100 butterfly.
As the coronavirus pandemic started blanketing the country, she remained stone-cold focused at Bucknell University. She clocked the two fastest times of her season with a 56.33 in qualifying and a 56.16 in the consolation final to earn a 12th-place finish.
“That was really great,” Gillan said. “I felt so lucky that we got that meet in because the Class 2A swimmers did not. I was grateful for the opportunity and was really proud of how I did last season. It gave me a lot of confidence that I can go to these big meets and place well and do well.”
She started swimming at 5 years old, and because of her success, eventually started training in the offseason with the New York Sharks, an organization based in Goshen, New York, located almost 60 miles from her home.
School, travel, practice, travel, homework — it forced Gillan to keep up a strict balancing act, and her commitment produced results.
As sports shut down this spring, Gillan, like most scholastic athletes, was without the ability to maintain her usual training routine. So, she started weight training in a make-shift home gym, put herself through dry land workouts and stayed positive.
“It was very strange,” Gillan, 17, said. “I never had that much free time before. It was such a big change for me. I learned a lot though and I grew a lot as a person, I think.
“Still, I definitely thought at certain points, things were not good. It was so upsetting to be stuck at home and it was hard to stay motivated to get back to where I was as a swimmer.”
While evolving her offseason approach, Gillan’s impression from the winter season still piqued the interest of college programs, despite their restrictions with recruiting. But she found what she was looking for at the University of Tampa, a Division II program in Florida. Her best time in the 100 fly would rank eighth on Tampa’s all-time list.
“It was really hard not being able to go on official visits,” Gillan said. “I actually got to visit at the end of August. Once I got on campus, I just knew that was where I belonged.
“The weather, of course, is beautiful and I liked the coach (Jimi Kiner) and just felt like it was a great fit. The atmosphere at the school was so welcoming.”
The process of getting back into competition shape started slowly in July.
“It probably took a good two months to start feeling strong again,” Gillan said.
In October, she clocked in a time of 1:57.16 in the 200 freestyle in a virtual meet. It is just off her career-best of 1:55.35, but certainly gave Gillan reason for optimism as the high school season approaches. The Lackawanna Interscholastic Athletic Association delayed the start of its season, meaning the defending league champion Lady Warriors do not know when they’ll swim their first dual meet.
Still, Gillan clings to the hope a season will be held.
“I am practicing more,” Gillan said. “We check temperatures, we maintain social distancing. Everyone is doing a great job. I am putting in the hard work.
“So far it’s been good. I try really hard not to think about the virus, and focus on what I can control in the pool and in school.”
Joby Fawcett has covered high school sports — including football, girls and boys volleyball, girls and boys tennis, girls and boys swimming, boys basketball, girls and boys track and field, and girls and boys lacrosse — for 22 years. The High School Sports Blog offers deeper insights plus statistical and historical information for fans and features photos, videos and graphics along with Top 5 polls for tennis and volleyball. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5367; @sportsTT