By Sarah Colson
Before the sun rises, Hannah Gerlock, a local senior home-school student, wakes up, grabs a quick breakfast, and makes it to her swim practice by 5 a.m. After two hours of training, Gerlock heads home for a full day of schoolwork before diving back into the pool again at 3 p.m. Why does she do it? Because even when she hates it, the six-foot Gerlock says she can’t help but have a deep love for the sport of swimming. And that love is leading her to a college career at the University of South Carolina next fall.
“Swimming for me is a very love-hate relationship,” Gerlock says, “But the thing that draws me back is not yet knowing what I can do with the sport.”
The reason Gerlock isn’t sure how far she can take the sport is because she’s only been competitively swimming for a little more than a year. Gerlock was introduced to swimming when she was just 9 years old, but after a few years of it, she says her heart belonged to another sport.
“I was pretty competitive,” she says, “but I got to the point where I was just exhausted and my heart really wanted to play basketball. I’ve always loved it. So I started playing but since I’m homeschooled there really wasn’t a great venue for basketball.”
Hoping she could find some place to play, Gerlock contacted Daniel Boone High School’s head coach, Travis Mains. Excited by her interest, Mains let Gerlock play for the school her sophomore year. While she loved the sport, Gerlock says she just had a nagging feeling in her mind that she would never be able to find out how good she could have been in the water.
She tried to make both sports work for a while, going from basketball practice to two hours of swimming each day. Eventually, Gerlock says she was “completely burned out.”
“I had always dreamed of playing on a high school team and Coach Mains was a phenomenal coach so I was really excited,” Gerlock says of her year on the court. “It was an incredible experience I wouldn’t change for anything. But it came to the point where I really regretted stopping swimming because I really didn’t know what I could do with the sport.”
Wanting to find out, Gerlock decided to swim for the Barracuda Swim Club of East Tennessee, and also to swim with Science Hill’s swim team. While she can’t compete for the Hilltoppers, she was allowed to train.
At the 2015 Northeast Tennessee Regional Championship, Gerlock won the 100-yard freestyle and was runner-up in the 50-yard freestyle. In last year’s state championship meet, she placed 18th and 21st, respectively, in those same two events.
Barracuda Head Coach Chris Coraggio says what he saw from Gerlock from day one was something only the great swimmers possess.
“She’s willing to work hard,” Coraggio says, “and swimming’s a lot of hard work. When she made up her mind to be a swimmer, she became dedicated to that. It wasn’t, ‘hey I want to be a swimmer and it’s going to be a hobby.’ She treats it as a sport and that goes a long way.”
And considering two-a-days and the intense training schedule Coraggio enforces, it’s a good thing Gerlock is so determined.
“When I was younger, I didn’t train nearly the yardage that he’s putting us through now,” she says. “So getting used to the sport was huge. When you’re coming into it, you’re having to adapt again. The training is just brutal.
“I’ve had to learn how to mentally push through the sets when my body is ready to quit. With basketball I was able to do really hard training at the beginning, but then through the season because of the nature of the sport, it eases up. But with swimming, it tends to get harder and harder until I have a big competition, so that’s been a challenge.”
Gerlock says that besides her love of swimming and determination that carries her through those “brutal” training sessions, she has new friends on both teams who she says took her in from the very beginning.
“In high school, you just don’t really know how the kids are going to take you,” she says, “and the kids can be nice to your face, but they were so much more than that. They were truly like friends to me and we’ve become the best of friends and I’m truly thankful for each and every one of them, both the Science Hill girls and the Barracudas. I really wouldn’t have been able to perform or get better without their support. And Coach Chris, he really brings in those who aren’t a part of a team and he makes them part of that.”
Coraggio says he knew Gerlock could take her swimming to the next level, but also recognized that her times alone were not fast enough to gain the attention of Division I schools. So, Coraggio encouraged her get creative.
“Coach Chris said that maybe I should write letters,” Gerlock says. “So I wrote a letter to the University of South Carolina and I told Head Coach (McGee) Moody my situation. Then I said, ‘I’m tall. You can work with that.’ I told them I was a sprint freestyler. I said, ‘I would just really like a chance.’ And I guess I was just hoping that they would see that there’s potential.”
They did see potential. And Gerlock said Moody and the other coaches were excited that while most students come out of high school already burned out on swimming, Gerlock was fresh and excited about what her career held. They offered her a spot on the team.
“For some reason I didn’t send letters to anywhere else,” she says. “I don’t know why but I just knew that’s where I wanted to go. I kept praying about it and I finally was like, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. I have this chance to swim at this big school, so I’m going to go for it.”
Gerlock plans on majoring in biology and becoming a physical or sports therapist. In the meantime, she says she’ll keep giving her all to swimming.
“I really want to prove to myself, ‘hey, you can do this,’” Gerlock says. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Coach Chris puts us through a lot, but I really want to conquer it. I really did not want to leave high school wishing I should have tried (swimming) again. So I started back and now I really want to see how far I can go. For me, it’s about doing something that’s really hard and really rewarding and that’s why I love it.”