MONONGAHELA – Luke Simpson doesn’t practice in a pool with multiple lanes and school records affixed to a fancy wall display or banners hanging from the ceiling.
When Simpson arrived for practice Tuesday afternoon, Manfred Mann was blasting on a boom box, the pool’s one lane was full, and he was the youngest swimmer there – by 40 or 50 years.
The top-seeded entrant in the 50-yard freestyle at this week’s WPIAL Class AA swim and dive championships doesn’t come from a big-time program.
In fact, Simpson doesn’t really have a program at all since Charleroi cut swimming two years ago.
But he keeps his passion alive here, at the Mon Valley YMCA, kicking it with the early-bird supper crowd.
“It’s tough,” said Simpson, whose seed time in the 50 free is 21.53 seconds. “I like the feeling of having someone there yelling at me, telling me to go faster.”
Simpson will be represented at the WPIAL meet by Dr. Brad A. Ferko, but he has another voice inside him, urging him to push himself and not give up.
Dean Simpson Sr., Luke’s grandfather, taught 3-year-old Luke how to swim on a family vacation in New Jersey, and the youngest Simpson has been hooked ever since.
He works at the Mon Valley YMCA. Works out there three times a day sometimes, too.
Feb. 19 marked one year since his grandfather died of cancer at the age of 79 – he lifted weights and swam right up until a week before his death, Luke said – but it’s safe to say that he won’t be forgotten Thursday and Friday.
“I know he’s there pushing me,” Luke said. “I know he’s there cheering for me. He’s my coach. An angel in the outfield.”
Simpson qualified for the WPIAL meet by swimming with Ringgold’s team, though he wasn’t allowed to compete or score points.
If there was an extra lane, he got it. Otherwise he had to swim by himself – pretty much a death sentence in a racing sport.
“I actually got my best 50 free time swimming by myself,” Simpson countered.
Though he wasn’t required to attend all of Ringgold’s meets, Simpson did anyway, soaking up the competition. He even broke two Ringgold school records … on Senior Night.
“That was the one meet I actually had fans going to,” Simpson said. “Our meets were all over the place. I’m sure if they were home, I would have a bunch of people. It was my Senior Night, and I figured I would go out with a bang.”
It’s a thought that might help explain Simpson’s entire high school career.
After finishing fifth in the 50 free with a time of 22.22 last winter, Simpson added a morning workout to his routine; he now wakes up at 4 a.m., eats breakfast, lifts from 5:30-7 a.m., then heads to school.
He swims after school, drives home to eat, then heads back to the YMCA to swim later at night.
“There are a lot of days where I don’t want to do it, but I think of the end result,” Simpson said. “I want it.”
Simpson, unfortunately, knows not doing it all too well. As a freshman and sophomore, Simpson didn’t challenge himself in the pool or in the classroom. He crumbled.
Without that stimulation, he was a 2.6 student, an average swimmer at best. Then a few of his teachers started challenging him, same for his former coach, Jamie Stache.
“I have this weird thing where I need to be challenged when I do things. I didn’t realize that until beginning of junior year.
“I realized that I needed to get my head in the game.”
Simpson raised his GPA to 3.0 as a sophomore and now 4.0 on a weighted scale, with all honors and AP classes. His swimming has obviously improved.
Simpson, who’s also seeded ninth in the 100 backstroke, knows how close he is to Blackhawk graduate Mark Stepanian’s 2009 WPIAL record (20.79).
He and No. 2 seed Cameron Clerici – the reigning 50 free champion – have even joked about finished with the same time, as long as it’s below Stepanian’s.
“It’s going to be tough,” Simpson said.
So is swimming by yourself, many might argue. But that sure hasn’t stopped Simpson, who hopes to attend Pitt, Westminster or Saint Vincent, continue swimming and study mechanical engineering.
“I’m just trying to do my best,” Simpson said. “I know no matter how I do at the WPIAL meet, my pap will be proud of me. I’m satisfied with that. My parents and everyone I know … I just want to make them happy.”
The South Fayette girls have three top-seeded relays: the 200-yard medley, the 400 free and 200 free. … Maddie Bartrug of South Fayette is the top seed in the girls 50 free at 25.03 seconds. … Teammate Morgan Fink is No. 1 in the 100 breaststroke at 1:09.04. … In Class AAA, Peters Township’s Kyle Higgins is the No. 2 seed in the boys 100 butterfly (51.92) and the 100 backstroke (53.07). … Saoirse Palu-Benson of the Peters Township girls team is second in the 500 free at 4:58.52.