It’s at least a little ironic that the most prepared person at the pool can be the most nervous.
Jenn Jackson, a 15-year-old sophomore at Nash Central, already is the most accomplished female swimmer in the history of her school and its conference.
She has no aversion to being in the pool, toiling away quietly for hours on end. She doesn’t have to be coaxed into the extra work – dry-land cardio and lifting – and already has competed in high-level events and done well.
For the second consecutive season, Jackson was named the Telegram’s All-Area Girls’ Swimmer of the Year, this time for a sophomore season in which she went to the podium twice at the NCHSAA 3-A state championship meet.
Yet, Jackson still isn’t completely confident in herself as a swimmer, which begs the question: If this isn’t her ceiling, what in the world is next?
“I was never a super gifted swimmer, but I was confident in what I could do. Seeing someone with her ability, it’s like, how are you not confident?” said Chris Worsinger, Jackson’s YMCA coach. “She’s hugely talented, and it’s amazing that she doesn’t always believe in herself when everybody around her can see (she has) this much ability.”
On Thursday, Jackson will compete at the YMCA Short Course National Championships in Greensboro for the second time, only the third swimmer in the history of the Harrison Family YMCA to qualify once. She swam at USA Swimming’s Southern Zone sectionals in Charlotte last month, a national stage on which 11-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte also competed.
For all her experience and preparation and talent, the smallest things can unnerve Jackson. Something as trivial as the way a competitor warms up. Or the way the venue looks. Or even watching younger swimmers practice kicks.
Insecurity fills her mind and a person already critical of herself goes into overdrive. She fantasizes about what can go wrong, a detrimental process that makes her afraid of losing.
“I criticize myself and I pay attention to everything around me. That’s part of my problem,” Jackson said. “Being afraid of losing actually makes me do worse. I’m not the kind of swimmer that can turn that into a positive, motivational thing. It makes me worse.”
At the 3-A Eastern Regionals, Jackson had one of her off days. She had chosen the 100 breaststroke and 100 freestyle as her two individual events and didn’t impress herself in either one. It had been difficult for her to pick only two events, and a decent-but-not-spectacular day didn’t help.
She swam 55.64 in the 100 free and just under 1:10 in the 100 breaststroke, good enough for fourth and third in the region, respectively.
The times earned Jackson two qualifications for the state meet, but it was far from her best.
Worsinger has tried hard to keep his star swimmer confident. They have a routine for pre-race panic in which Jackson visualizes going to the beach. She sees the white sand, feels the sun and hears seagulls in the distance, and puts herself into a calm state of readiness.
This version of Jackson – the composed, self-assured Jackson – has the ability to win a state championship.
That version showed up to this year’s state meet. Under her regional times, Jackson would not have qualified for the finals in either event at states.
Instead, she set personal records in both events in the state finals, taking 1.4 seconds off her 100 free time from regionals and nearly three seconds off her 100 breaststroke time.
Particularly with the breaststroke, Jackson knew she belonged.
Because she did belong.
“I was confident and I was ready. Then I hit the turn and I was like, ‘You can be a state champ, Jenn!’” she said. “So I just kept going and going and going. Then I saw (the times) and I didn’t even realize what I had done until I was on the podium.”
In the end, it was a second-place finish, which coupled nicely with a third-place spot in the 100 free.
Jackson still has more than two years of high school remaining. She doesn’t yet have a driver’s license.
Jackson doesn’t mind the exhausting preparation.
She has handled school work fine – Jackson currently is No. 1 in her class – and is OK with missing out sometimes in favor of swimming.
Those are the normal downfalls of high school swimmers, and they don’t seem to have much effect on Jackson.
“A kid that age – my daughter swam, and I know how hard it is when a group of girls is going to the movie or something and you can’t go because you gotta go to swimming practice,” Nash Central coach Margaret Godwin said. “She’s dedicated. She gives up a lot for swimming.”
With all the other obstacles cleared, Jackson has just one to go. She made herself into a good swimmer, but she must master the art of a sport that demands a clear mind. It will be the defining question of her final two seasons in high school:
Can the best swimmer at the pool get out of her own head?
“I definitely have a lot to work on mentally,” Jackson said. “I know I can do it physically because I train all the time. I am strong. But I just need to let go of the mental part because swimming is a mental sport.”
“One day, I’ll get it,” she said. “At least I hope I do.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or firstname.lastname@example.org