Amy Hughes, NCAA.com
Millersville junior Sarah Bernhardt didn’t start out as a swimmer. In fact, she didn’t start swimming competitively until her sophomore year of high school.
“I was originally a dancer,” explains Bernhardt. “I started dancing when I was five and danced for 10 years at a semi-professional ballet company. I was dancing 30-40 hours a week and it was incredibly intense. After 10 years, it just got to be a lot to deal with. I wanted to have a change. I had a couple friends on the swim team at my high school and they said ‘why don’t you try it out? You want something different!’ I went with that and I had no clue I’d have this much success in it.”
Bernhardt certainly has had success in the pool. During her first season at Millersville (2009-10), she contributed six new school records in the 50 free, 100 free and 100 fly, and was part of three relay records with the 200 medley relay, 200 free relay and 400 free relay.
This season, she has broken her own school record in the 50 free (24.64) and has clocked NCAA “B” cuts in both the 100 fly (57.40) and 100 free (52.86) as well as putting her name behind another school record, the 50 fly, with a time of 27.14.
Because of her late start in the sport, Bernhardt was a virtual unknown when Millersville head coach Kyle Almoney got a DVD of her, along with her times.
“I didn’t know a lot about her,” said Almoney. “One of the first things she told me was that she had only been swimming for three years and she was a 55 (second) flyer. My staff and I did some research and we found out that she’s a natural athlete, a ballerina, who had been focusing on dance and was very athletic. She was exactly the kind of kid I was looking for, a great student-athlete with lots of potential and we were fortunate enough to get her.”
Bernhardt is certainly a natural athlete and took to the pool very quickly.
“I made it to States my first year I was swimming, as part of a relay,” said Bernhardt. “I had no clue what I was doing. When I first started, I didn’t even know what ‘getting my time’ meant. Coaches would ask me what my time was in that 50 and I didn’t understand. It took me a little while to get the terms down. My junior year was when I really started to get the hang of it and training really hard. I knew that I could be an excellent swimmer and stick with it and swim in college.”
“Sarah is very coachable,” said Almoney. “I just have to remember to not throw too much at her at once. She is still very raw in certain areas, so we have to take it bit by bit rather than overloading her.”
In a fortunate chain of circumstances, Bernhardt’s swimming career started under the tutelage of one of the legends in the southern New Jersey swimming community, John Casadia.
“Sarah’s stroke mechanics are very good,” said Almoney. “She’s extremely flexible and athletic, which you need for a fly. She has a good rhythm and grasp of the stroke. She understands the mechanics. When I got her, she was very raw so we’re still fine-tuning, but she had a really good high school and club coach, so she had a basic grasp of it.”
Bernhardt also credits Casadia with starting her off on the right foot.
“The year I came on was the year he retired,” said Bernhardt. “I was always his summer league swimmer and he really took an interest in me from the start. He really helped me with my technique and building up my strength. I want to say that he’s what made me into the successful swimmer that I am today. He has his crazy little tricks and different activities to make swimming fun but challenging at the same time. He really believes in you, which gives you the confidence to advance in what you’re doing. He made such an impact on my life.”
With a solid foundation, Bernhardt and Almoney have high expectations for the remainder of Sarah’s collegiate career.
“She is still such a raw talent,” said Almoney. “She has a lot to learn and she knows it. She hasn’t touched the surface yet. You want to keep teaching her and eventually she’ll ‘get it’ because she’s only been swimming for 4-5 years now. As good as she is now, by her senior year she is going to be twice that.”
Bernhardt’s dance background is another big factor in her success.
“[Ballet] was very, very intense,” said Bernhardt. “Weight goals. Pointe shoes. I had my toes taped up all the time. We had six-hour rehearsals in a single day, especially right before a performance.
“It definitely taught me time management,” Bernhardt continued. “Straight after school, I’d go to dance for about three hours, then I’d be up doing homework until midnight or 1 a.m. Being a dancer, with those intense hours, it really taught me discipline, dedication and determination. I just carried all of that through to swimming. No matter what I do, I always put my best effort into it and try to be the best I can be. Through high school swimming and now college, I just push myself and stay focused. So far, it’s been going well.”
Her coach agrees.
“Sarah is team-first,” said Almoney. “She always comes to the pool deck with a smile on her face and will work until the last and then ask for more help. She really strives to be best she can be. I think that’s the most encouraging thing as a coach. It’s great when your star swimmer is about the team and not herself. I think that’s more important than anything because she’s going to swim fast no matter what, and she’s really going to strive to help out the team. I think that’s one of the greatest qualities about her. She’s a huge team player.
“Everybody wants to see Sarah get to nationals,” continued Almoney. “It has been more than 20 years since Millersville had a swimmer get to the NCAA Championships. She keeps working hard and she stays focused on her goals. She has greatness in her.”
Bernhardt is starting to see her hard work pay off. In November at the Highlander Invitational in Radford, Va., Bernhardt turned in a fantastic meet, posting NCAA “B” standards in multiple events.
“I was so excited,” said Bernhardt. “When I made my NCAA “B” cut for my fly and freestyle, that was just a dream come true. Finally, all of my hard work paid off. I got my lifetime-best time, and making it to NCAAs has been a goal of mine since the start of college. I was just ecstatic.”
With the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Championships on February 16 in Mechanicsburg, Pa., followed by the NCAA Division II Championships in March and two more years of swimming for the Marauders to look forward to, the best is yet to come for Sarah Bernhardt.