NEW LONDON >> Olivia Paoletti understands and embraces the drudgery that comes with training to be the most decorated high school girls’ swimmer in the state of Pennsylvania.
“Swimming is one of the more mental sports,” she said. “It’s individualized, and practice is kind of you and the bottom of the pool, just swimming back and forth.”
A junior at Avon Grove High School, Paoletti has already captured four state titles as well as numerous district, league, pool and school records — and she still has one more season to go. When college recruiting ramps up this summer, it’s going to be like a feeding frenzy.
“Olivia is humble, a great teammate and motivated each day in practice,” said Kennett head coach Aaron Shepherd.
A repeat recipient of the Daily Local News All-Area Swimmer of the Year Award, Paoletti is the two-time reigning Most Outstanding Swimmer at the PIAA Class 3A Championships, and last month she led the Red Devils to the state team title. Like many others, she has all of the physical abilities to be dominant in the pool, but what separates her from the pack is more cerebral than anything else.
“I’ve committed my life to swimming,” said the 17-year-old from New London Township. “I spend over two hours every day in the pool, so a lot of it is keeping yourself motivated and focused in practice and in meets.
“One of the hardest things is missing out on stuff with my friends, but being successful in my races is worth it to me.”
Anybody who knows Paoletti isn’t at all surprised that she ranks at the top of her class with a 4.5 grade point average, that she is a member of the National Honor Society, and eventually wants to go to medical school. Avon Grove head coach Kelly Burk believes that Paoletti has a mental edge, and that her laser-like focus is a big part of her success.
“Not only is she a phenomenal swimmer, she is also an excellent student-athlete,” Burk said. “She has all of the physical ability. At a large meet, like states or districts, a lot of it is mental.”
It was certainly on display at the state meet when Paoletti grabbed gold medals in two of the first three events, successfully defended her state crown in the 200 IM (1:59.2) and also swimming the second leg of the winning 200 medley relay.
“For her to go back up to Bucknell as the reigning two-time state champion, and swimmer of the meet, I can only imagine the amount of pressure she was feeling,” Burk said. “Plus, she’s only a junior and going against a lot of seniors that were at her heels.
Paoletti added: “I was nervous, but I’m always nervous before I swim,” she admitted. “I felt pressure but it was what I put on myself. I knew we were in the running to win the state team championship, and that was probably why I was so nervous.”
On day two, Paoletti got off to a shaky start in the finals of the 100 breaststroke, but came on strong at the finish to catch Downingtown East’s Heather MacCausland and grab a share of the state title.
“When I saw that she had tied, there was almost a sense of relief,” Burk recalled. “My heart was sinking during the race because I knew she was tired and all of the pressure. When I looked up and saw the results, I actually started to cry.”
It was a rare dead-heat, as both touched the wall in 1:01.49.
“I do remember not being into it the first 25,” Paoletti said. “I did a turn and I saw that I was in last place. I told myself to just put my head down and swim.
“When I touched and saw that we were tied for first I was so happy. That doesn’t normally happen, and Heather is such a sweet person and a great competitor, so being able to share a state title with her is amazing.”
With barely enough time to towel off, Paoletti was thrown back into the cauldron in the next event — the 400 freestyle relay — and anchored a fifth place finish for Avon Grove. Her younger sister, Isabella, also took part in the race.
“It was something me and my sister haven’t been able to do in a very long time,” Olivia said.
“On relays, you’re not just swimming for yourself but for the three other girls in the relay as well as the entire team and coaches cheering you on. For me, it was just so different from anything I’ve ever experienced.”
In all, Paoletti directly accounted for nearly half of the 228.5 that the Devils amassed as a team. But that was another aspect that surprised nobody. Throughout her career, she has made it a habit of coming up big in big meets. Earlier in March, Paoletti shattered her own district record en route to a win in the 100 breaststroke.
“I feel like I do my best when things are on the line,” she said. “And I know that I am not only swimming for myself, but also the team.
“I try to stay in my race and not worry about anyone around me. I don’t want to let the outside pressures get into my head. My coaches tell me to just stay out of my own way.”
Paoletti’s dedication to her teammates is unquestioned. During the regular season, she competed despite suffering from an illness, and Avon Grove went on to capture the Ches-Mont title and go undefeated for the third consecutive years.
“No matter what adversity Olivia is facing, she still swims her best,” Burk said. “She had the stomach flu twice in our dual meet season. I asked her if she wanted me to pull her from the meets and both times she said, ‘Nope, I am not going to let my teammates down.’
“It happened before the Coatesville meet and she went out and broke two individual pool records and was part of two relays.”
According to Burk, college coaches are prohibited from in-person contact with recruits until July 1, but Paoletti has already received numerous letters from Division I programs all across the country.
“I’m keeping a lot of options open and going through the process before I start to narrow things down,” she said. “I’d like to be able to commit this fall. It’s always been a dream of mine to swim at the Division I level and further my academic career.”
And, of course, Paoletti is looking for places that have excellent medical schools as well as swimming programs.