Jackie Jeschke sounded almost sheepish about her performance in the pool.
“I’m still trying to process it,” said the rising sophomore at Aquinas. “I really didn’t think I could get something this big because I’m only 14. I just wanted to do my best at this meet, and my best ended up being Olympic Trials.”
In the last event on the last day of her last meet before the deadline to post a qualifying time for the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, Jeschke swam her career best Sunday in the 200-meter backstroke in Knoxville, Tenn. Her time of 2:17.88 was more than 4 seconds better than her previous best, but more importantly, it was 0.11 second faster than the qualifying standard for the Olympic Trials later this month in Omaha, Neb.
It was the eighth-best time by a 14-year-old girl this year.
“If I had coughed in the water or messed up one stroke, I wouldn’t be going,” Jeschke said. “So you really have to perfect every little detail and technique, and speed and tempo has to be perfect. Every little thing adds up.”
“It’s a remarkable accomplishment,” said Jeschke’s mother, Peggy. “It’s kind of hard at this age to get that far. Our dreams for her were one day to swim in college, but never to have achieved this at age 14.”
Unlike most aspiring Olympians who focus for years on reaching the biggest stage in sports, Jeschke’s intent only goes as far back as March. It was at the season-opening goal meeting with Aiken-Augusta Swim League coach Adam Byers that the Olympic Trials bar was first set.
“For a while we thought she was capable of something like that,” Byers said. “She’s always been a good swimmer and was a state champ at 10. But she started to develop and practice at another level this year.”
For a girl who has been swimming since she was 5 and puts in 23 hours a week practicing in the pool, shaving the needed time off her best event in a matter of months seemed a daunting task.
“At the beginning of the year I was kind of hesitant about it at first and didn’t really have full confidence that I could make it,” said Jeschke, who prefers distance events to sprints. “But my coach really pushed me to my limits and believed in me the whole time. He just knew that I was going to make it at the meet in Knoxville. I ended up getting it and it was amazing.”
Even her parents were concerned that the oldest of their three kids was reaching too far, too soon.
“I was worried what might happen if she didn’t achieve the goal and how her drive would be,” her mother said. “That’s what I was prepared for Sunday night before I got the phone call that she made it. Will she keep going? Will she be driven? But she’s got a self drive that I think is going to carry her through. She’s just a happy child when she’s in the water. She has such a competitive spirit about her.”
It takes that drive and competitive spirit to wake up every morning at 5 a.m. to get to the pool by 6 for the first of two two-hour practice sessions. In between, Jeschke works as an assistant coach at the Brynwood Swim and Racquet Club, passing on her passion for the pool to younger kids.
“It’s definitely the job for me because I just love swimming so much,” she said. “To share my love for swimming with other younger kids and teaching them and watching them grow is really an amazing experience.”
For now she is looking forward to her own amazing experience at the Olympic Trials.
There, she’ll share the water with the biggest stars in swimming, like Michael Phelps, Dara Torres or her personal favorite, Ryan Lochte, the reigning Olympic gold medalist in the men’s 200-meter backstroke.
“Warming up in the same lane as them and being in the same pool, I think that is going to be so cool,” Jeschke said. “My goal is to swim my best and keep a positive attitude throughout the meet and really enjoy the experience.”
She’ll travel to Omaha with two of her ASL teammates also making their first trip to the Olympic Trials. Steven Kekacs, who just graduated from Aiken High, qualified in the 200 fly and the mile and 800 free. Katherine Huff, a recent Lakeside grad, made the time in the 50 and 100 free.
“For each of them, we’re looking for them to swim their best,” Byers said. “If they swim faster than they’ve ever swam, we’ll feel good about it. It’s just an experience to be involved at that level, and at Jackie’s young age it’s pretty special. That’s really what the idea is. The way swimming is going now, they swim longer, and you really need to get that experience and be exposed to that level of meet.”
For Jeschke, who has never even competed in nationals, it will be a taste of what might await in the future more than a chance to emerge as one of the two event competitors to qualify for the London Games. In four years she’ll be a freshman in college when the trials for Brazil take place. In 2020 she’ll likely be a college graduate in the prime of her career.
“I try so hard during practice, and I’m so determined,” she said. “If I have a goal, I work every day, every hour to achieve it.”
Byers believes she can reach other goals the way she fulfilled this one.
“She’s getting better and better and has a bright future,” he said.