WILKES-BARRE – This is a story about heart and will. Rachel Finnegan won’t argue that.
The Holy Redeemer senior swimming standout has been on a roller coaster ride, with so many peaks and valleys that most high school athletes probably can’t comprehend.
She’s seen the lowest of lows, sitting at the side of the pool – watching as her Royals teammates conditioned and trained while her own future was in doubt. Swimming, her love and passion, an unknown at that point.
But when she walks into the natatorium on the campus of Bucknell University for the PIAA Class 2A state swimming and diving championships, she will experience the ultimate of highs.
Ending her scholastic campaign the way she hoped to when school began in September.
“Honestly, I didn’t know if I would ever reach this point again,” said Finnegan, who will swim in two events at states, the 100 free and 100 backstroke.
To understand Finnegan’s story is to walk in her footsteps along the journey with her.
She’s a fierce competitor who earned a state medal her sophomore season. She’s had a pretty respectable career at Holy Redeemer both in the pool and in the classroom.
This was set to be her grand farewell.
“My senior year,” she said. “This was going to be my year. Definitely, I was ready for this.”
That is, until the end of December.
The part that throws this story down a different road.
She was lifting right after Christmas, and that’s when it happened. She can’t describe what exactly it was, only the emotion surrounded with it.
A visit to the doctor brought the news.
Finnegan had a partial tear of the rotator cuff that would sideline her for weeks.
“I was scared,” she said. “I didn’t know if it was going to end my career. I didn’t know what to think. It was tough. I didn’t know what my future was going to hold. My coach told me that we would sit down and work through it together. And I believed her. I’m just so glad that I stuck with it.”
As her teammates trained in the pool, Finnegan kicked to stay in shape – while crossing her fingers that everything was going to work out according to the new plan.
Legs kicking, and mind thinking.
“It was hard. Real hard,” she said. “At times, I didn’t know what to think. I was watching everyone else, and I wanted to be there with them.”
While the injury began to heal, Finnegan’s mental game still wasn’t there.
Can you really blame her? Sitting out of the pool for six weeks, even the best athletes would ask the question.
“I didn’t know if I was ready,” she said. “Honestly, my body was ready before my mind. To get your mind ready, you have to believe in yourself, and at that point, I didn’t. You have to trust yourself, and I wasn’t there. I needed the people around me. My parents, my coaches, everyone said that I could do this. It was hard because I didn’t know what was going to happen. If I didn’t have everyone telling me that I could do this, I don’t know if I would have.”
With less than three weeks before districts, Finnegan began the road back to golden glory.
Three weeks to make up for the almost two months she lost.
“Basically, she had two options. She could be down on herself or make a new plan and go after it,” Redeemer head coach Mara Pawlenok said. “She healed up and went back to work. Every day, she worked hard. Her physical therapy was pretty aggressive, and we knew that she had a great base from the work she put in during the preseason. She is an amazing person. She was still smiling, and determined to accomplish those goals she set. I can’t say enough about her. She’s the kind of girl you want your son to date, and the type of girl that you want babysitting your children.”
This story does have a happy ending.
At the District 2 Class 2A meet, Finnegan took gold in the 100 backstroke, while finishing second to Scranton Prep’s Cat Donlon in the 100 free.
Both results were good enough to earn a return trip to states.
“Mentally, the district meet was big for me,” she said. “It showed that all the hard work did pay off. My confidence is back. Going to states means more to me this year than any other year because of everything that I’ve been through. To be able to swim one more time at this level is amazing. It means a lot to me, and I’m going to savor every moment while I’m there.”