Mt. Pleasant duo eager to compete with best at U.S. Olympic swimming team trials

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Friday, June 14, 2024 | 5:17 PM


When the U.S. Olympic team trials begin Saturday, two girls from the Mt. Pleasant swimming program will be competing for a trip to Paris in August.

Heather Gardner, a 2020 Mt. Pleasant graduate and a recent graduate of Liberty University, and senior-to-be Lily King will be making their first appearances in the event, which is at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium, a football field converted into a pool.

Gardner, 22, will be swimming in the 100 breaststroke Sunday, and King will compete in the 100 freestyle on Tuesday and the 50 freestyle on June 22. Both are vying for a spot on the USA squad that will compete in the Summer Olympics.

While their ultimate dreams are to don the red, white and blue of the USA swimming team, their realistic goals are doing their best and enjoying the experience.

The duo has a bond as Gardner was always there to offer to help train the younger King.

Gardner was a six-time WPIAL champion and one-time PIAA champion with three runner-up finishes. She is convinced that covid cost her a second PIAA gold medal her senior season.

“It was weird and annoying,” Gardner said about her senior year. “The PIAA awarded medals how you were seeded. I was seeded No. 1 in the 50 freestyle and fourth in the 100 breaststroke. I was ready for the PIAA tournament, and I was confident I could win the breaststroke. It was kind of a bummer.”

She was a high school All-American in the 50 freestyle as a sophomore and the 100 breaststroke her junior year.

At Liberty, she helped the Flames to their sixth consecutive Atlantic Sun Conference title. She finished sixth in the 200 breaststroke at the 2024 conference meet.

“I’m super excited to compete this weekend,” Gardner said. “Competing is my Father’s Day present to my dad (Joe).

“How I qualified was surprising. I was competing in a midseason meet, and I swam a personal record of 1:10.50 and I was two-tenths of a second from the qualifying mark. I dropped my time by three seconds, which is a huge drop. I called my parents and told them the exciting news.

“I was doing a warm-down when one of my teammates said a girl from Ohio was going to race to see if she could qualify for the Olympics and did I want to race again. I said when, and she told me now. I got changed, and I swam a 1:09.85. It was so funny, and I had to call my parents again and tell them I hit the mark. It was amazing.”

Gardner, with the help of a new weightlifting coach, has gotten stronger and faster. She credits her new workout routine as a big reason for her improvement.

“I can’t wait to compete against the best in the country and to see Lily compete,” Gardner said. “It’s going to be exciting.”

King, 17, has been swimming since her mother, Stephanie, got her involved.

“I was competing in soccer and volleyball, and my mom got me involved in swimming and I liked it,” King said. “It was different, and I enjoyed it. Coach Sandy (Felice) saw something in me and put me against tougher competition. I really loved it.”

King has had an amazing high school career. She has won 10 PIAA gold medals (six individual and four relays) and owns numerous state and school records.

She qualified for the 50 freestyle trials in 2022 at the Toronto Open and the 100 freestyle in March in Buffalo. That’s when she hit her best marks: 23.24 seconds in the 50 and 52.53 in the 100.

“I’m looking forward to soaking up the experience of competing against the best,” King said. “This is something I’ve been working towards the last two years. I’m just hoping for my best times.”

King said she was thankful to learn from Gardner when she was first getting started.

“Heather helped me a lot, and we’re still close,” King said. “I’ll be rooting for her. She’s been very supportive. She’s someone I looked up to. It’s kind of neat to have two girls from the same high school competing for the Olympics.”

King is committed to attend N.C. State, and Gardner said she’s considering pursuing a master’s degree.

Paul Schofield is a TribLive reporter covering high school and college sports and local golf. He joined the Trib in 1995 after spending 15 years at the Daily Courier in Connellsville, where he served as sports editor for 14 years. He can be reached at pschofield@triblive.com.

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