Published December 22. 2012 4:00AM Updated December 22. 2012 10:03AM
Jessica Hespeler makes things look easy.
Two individual events at the Eastern Connecticut Conference championship and two meet records. Two State Open titles. High school All-America honors. Division I scholarship.
Here's something you should know, however, about Hespeler, a Ledyard High School senior and The Day's 2012 All-Area Swimmer of the Year: Virginia Tech, from which Hespeler has accepted a partial scholarship to swim next season, is getting a fighter.
"Jessica is that special swimmer/athlete that is able to combine the three main qualities that make a great swimmer," Ledyard coach Alan Opsahl said this week. "She has the natural physical ability and stroke coordination, she has the focus and determination to practices and conditioning and she has a natural understanding of race strategy combined with a competitive attitude."
Just don't underestimate the part regarding her focus and determination. Not this year.
Hespeler, who began swimming when she was 9, has competed for coach Christine Pelham since she was 12, most recently with the Connecticut Aquatic Club (CAC). Earlier this year, Pelham was hospitalized due to a serious illness, leaving Hespeler and the other members of the club reeling.
"She's been an incredible coach for me throughout the years," Hespeler said, speaking of Pelham, who is still recovering while the team is coached by her son Jay. "Without her, I wouldn't be where I am today. She's a very experienced coach who knows everything about swimming.
"She basically knew what would be just right for me."
Hespeler, getting ready to compete at the Junior National Championships in Indianapolis in August, remained with CAC, but also began driving to New Britain a few times a week to train with Bill Ball of the SoNoCo Swim Club, based at Central Connecticut State University.
So Hespeler's summer consisted of getting up at 5 a.m. to train, working 10 a.m.-7 p.m. as a lifeguard at Shennecossett Beach Club and going to bed early to start the day all over again.
The payoff came in Indianapolis. Hespeler reached the A final at the national meet in the 400-meter freestyle, finishing seventh. She calls it the biggest race of her career.
She then started her senior season at Ledyard as a high school All-American in the 200-yard freestyle, having received news of her selection over the summer.
Hespeler's 200 time of 1:50.19, recorded in winning the 2011 State Open, qualified as one of the top 100 in the nation.
The scholarship offer to Virginia Tech followed.
Then came the ECC meet at UConn-Avery Point. Hespeler set meet records in winning the 200 individual medley (2 minutes, 11.42 seconds) and the 100 freestyle (52.99).
She went on to win the Class M state championship in the 200 freestyle in 1:51.78, but the other event she chose to swim at states, the 100 freestyle, left people to wonder why a long-distance swimmer like Hespeler would want to swim a sprint at the state level.
Hespeler, who is 5-foot-9 ½ and won the 500 freestyle at the 2011 State Open, admits the distances are her strength.
"I have more time to think about the race; 50s are so short," said Hespeler, who came in third in Class M in the 100. "In the 500 or the mile, you get a pace going. You're focusing on the race, keeping long strokes."
But on Saturday, Nov. 17, Hespeler had already wrapped up the 200 freestyle title at the State Open meet at Yale University when she stepped to the starting line for the 100 free.
"I don't think Jessica led the whole 100 free until the last stroke," Opsahl said.
Hespeler, swimming in lane 5, finished first in 51.58 seconds, capping her distinguished career at Ledyard.
Now, Hespeler will test herself once again.
"I'm so excited about swimming in college," Hespeler said. "I know it's going to be intense, a lot more training. I'm just going to see where my hard work will take me.
"… When I started, I just had a love for the sport; I loved being in the water. As I got to bigger meets and more competition, I got that drive to be the best I could be."