The swimming record board in the basement of The Cambridge Matignon School hasn’t been updated since before the 2020-21 season, but once the new name plates are installed, they’ll all display the same name: Gracie O’Connell.
As a junior, O’Connell broke every individual and relay record in Matignon’s swim history.
With one meet left in the season, O’Connell had just the 100-yard freestyle record left to break. Swimming the leadoff leg of the 400-freestyle relay at the virtual EMISCA Invitational — which took the place of the canceled MIAA state meet — O’Connell completed the sweep and earned the final spot on Matignon’s record board.
“I never really thought twice about having all the records,” O’Connell said. “But I remember breaking my last one and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s kind of cool.’ ”
Matignon coach Emily Ellison told O’Connell just one thing before her record-setting swim: “Let’s see if we can do it.”
Now a senior captain, O’Connell will swim at Williams College next season. But without any other records to break, she’s got her eye on a different goal: earning a state title.
“I swim for best times, so it’s all based on that,” O’Connell said. “But my goal every year has been to try and get a state title. But even if I don’t succeed at that, just going a best time in any event at sectionals, states, or our league meet is enough for me.”
In pursuit of that goal, O’Connell swims up to 10 practices each week, both for Matignon and her club team, Crimson Aquatics. After two years on a local YMCA team, O’Connell, a Stoneham resident, qualified for a championship meet at age 10, which encouraged her to join Crimson Aquatics and begin taking swimming more seriously.
“I wouldn’t change it for the world,” O’Connell said of her workload. “I love it so much. It gives me something to do every day. I look forward to seeing my teammates, and you know, we all struggle together. So it’s a journey, but it’s so fun.”
Swimming, though, isn’t in her DNA. Neither of her parents were swimmers, and she and her oldest sister, Kaylie, are the only swimmers in their family. Still, her father Brian, a lifelong hockey player who played at Stoneham High School, wakes up at 4 a.m. almost every day to drive O’Connell to practice.
“Her dad was a great kid going through the school, so I could see how [Gracie] followed him,” said Matignon athletic director Mike Lahiff, who was a teacher and coach at Stoneham when Brian O’Connell was a student.
“Gracie is a great kid, and when we can get athletes to achieve at the top level, it’s just icing on the cake.”
O’Connell’s accomplishments in the pool extend beyond Matignon. Two years ago, Paul Ho, then a student at O’Bryant, saw O’Connell’s name and times on the MIAA website, and her success convinced him to transfer to Matignon, where he is now a senior captain and assistant coach.
“Coming from a different school, I thought I was fast until I met her,” Ho said.
But Ho wasn’t the only member of the team who joined because of O’Connell. Matignon was without a coach in 2018, when O’Connell was a freshman, so she approached Ellison, her club coach, and encouraged her to apply for the job.
Matignon hadn’t won a dual meet in eight years. In the three years since Ellison took over, the Warriors have only had winning seasons.
“That was always my goal,” Ellison said. “I was always like, ‘We’re gonna do this, and we’re gonna build this program out.’
“Gracie has obviously been a huge component, but we’ve really been able to transform this team.”
▪ More than half of the Mystic Valley Charter School swimming and diving team is made up of seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-graders, and the young squad has already made its mark.
The 200-yard medley relay of eighth-graders Britney Nayiga and Isabella Cirame, ninth-grader Lana Santos, and senior captain Deanna Guo qualified for sectionals and states with a time of 2 minutes, 1.45 seconds.
“The most important thing over the next year or two is really developing them the right way,” coach Andrew DiGiacomo said. “I really attribute their development to the great kind of approach we’ve had at the charter school.”
That approach, DiGiacomo said, depends on developing the athletes slowly and on an individual basis, rather than putting too much pressure on them as young swimmers.
“I really think the sky’s the limit for this group if they stay together and keep working hard,” DiGiacomo said.
▪ Four meets into the season, Bridgewater-Raynham remains undefeated on both the boys’ and girls’ sides. Junior captain Jessie McNeill, a returning Bay Colony All-Star, has led the way for the Trojans, qualifying for Division 1 states in the 200-yard individual medley and 500-yard freestyle. The 200-yard medley relay of McNeill, Kiley George, Lily Martin, and Eva Chaves also qualified for states and the South sectional in a win over Apponequet on Thursday .
Emma Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.