---- — By Eric Shultz
For The Daily Item
Surrounded by a small group of friends for emotional support, Devin Lessard braced herself for the news.
Lessard had been in this situation before. She knew how the process worked, when she would find out and what her odds were.
This time was different from every other instance, though -- on Feb. 27, Lessard found out she finally had been selected to compete in the 200-yard butterfly at the Division III NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships. It is the first time she will compete at the event, and it marks only the second time Susquehanna's women's program is sending a swimmer to the meet.
"I've had to deal with this process like every year I've been in college. I kind of knew the process of what was happening, and I'd have to wait and all that," Lessard said.
"I was just kind of like speechless and in shock," she said. "I was confident about going, but it was just having that actual invite. So it kind of took me a little bit to finally settle in, and then when I was getting all the congratulations and all of that overwhelming support, that's when it hit me emotionally."
A four-year journey
Qualifying for the national meet — which will be held from March 20-23 in Shenandoah, Texas — ended a four-year attempt to compete there.
As a freshman, Lessard was a provisional qualifier when Christie Savard became the first Crusader to make nationals, as a junior during the 2009-10 season. The following two years also brought Lessard close to the national meet, but she finished each season on the outside looking in.
Lessard attributed this season's different outcome to significantly improved times.
"This year I swam two-and-a-half seconds faster than I ever have...and the time that I swam [a 2:04.35 at the Ithaca Invitational on Feb. 16], that time has always gone to nationals, so that's why I was pretty confident that I would get to go."
While coach Jerry Foley said that he did not consider Lessard a shoo-in for the meet due to the difficulty in qualifying for it, he said he was confident in her ability to get selected this season.
Foley said he expected Lessard to swim fast, but did not worry about whether she would make nationals or not.
"I knew she would go her best times, because she had really trained hard on her own this summer to be ready for the year. We were just going to make our best shot at it," Foley said.
While Foley may have been focusing more on Lessard's times, making it to nationals was a goal for her since the start of her college career.
Lessard said she decided to swim in Division III because she saw nationals as an attainable achievement. >From the beginning, she had that ultimate goal in the back of her head, always working toward it.
Lessard made a few changes to her preparation this year that may have helped her make the championship meet.
Besides the extra work in the summer, Foley said Lessard tweaked her diet, choosing to eat healthier.
"That made a very big different in her physique," Foley said. "She became even more fit than she already was; she got much leaner because of that."
Now that Lessard has made it, she said words cannot really describe how she feels.
"It's just the perfect way to end my swimming career," she said. "I couldn't be happier, regardless of what happens at the meet. And it's just really nice having a goal that I've been working for four years now, and it's actually happening."
"A brand new experience"
While Lessard and Savard had a good relationship as teammates, Lessard said she had not initially asked her for advice for nationals.
Even if Lessard heads to Shenandoah, Texas, without picking Savard's brain about racing at the national stage, she will still have some knowledge of what to expect. Lessard's mother, Kim, has coached the Division III Washington College women's swimming program for 23 seasons and men's team for 22 seasons, and has been at the national meet before.
"(Kim) has taken kids to high-level meets herself," Foley said. "So I think Devin is well-prepared, and there's not going to be any surprises for Devin in terms of the expectations at the meet."
At the same time, though, Lessard said she thinks the experience is different for everyone, and hers won't be the same as Kim's or Savard's.
Lessard is expecting a very different atmosphere than she is used to at meets. With her team back at home, she'll be virtually on her own.
"I feel like I'm going to be a little fish in a big pond. But I think it'll be a lot of fun," Lessard said. "I know a lot of swimmers from swimming with them growing up, so it will be fun to see those people.
"It will be a brand new experience for me, not having my team. That'll be new, kind of scary," she continued. "But I know what I need to do, and the most nerve-racking part was actually getting to go to the meet. So I'm definitely going to try to enjoy it and have as much fun as possible, regardless of it being my last meet ever."
Foley has also had hands-on experience with big meets and will be able to offer Lessard some words of advice.
Winning league titles with the men's and women's teams during his stay time Bucknell, Foley knows what it takes to be successful on bigger stages. As a coach at the Sunbury branch of the Greater Susquehanna Valley YMCA program, he has had swimmers attain success in YMCA Swimming and USA Swimming events, too.
"The biggest thing is, just swim within yourself. Don't get too hyped up over it," Foley said.
No breaks during spring break
Now that Lessard has been selected to swim at the NCAA Championships, she has more goals on her mind.
She hopes to finish in her event's Top 16; such a finish would make her an All-American, and, according to Lessard, the first Crusader to achieve that status. Lessard is seeded eighth on the unofficial psych sheet for the 200 fly.
"I would be honored to be the first one to do that, so that's my big goal," she said.
Reaching an All-American level takes work, and Lessard made sure she put in the necessary practice to prepare for nationals.
She decided to stay at Susquehanna for half of her spring break, rather than going home right away. When she left campus, Lessard said, her training still continued.
"I didn't really have a break. It's kind of hard, seeing all these people getting to go away and stuff, but I know that I need to do this to swim how I want to swim," she said.
Foley said that the additional training sessions on campus were beneficial for Lessard.
Practicing on her own, Lessard could focus specifically on her butterfly, which is not always the case in a team practice setting. She has also swam sets that worked on her splits and times in order to give her feedback on her swimming, Foley said.
"It's much easier during the year when you have your teammates to push you, so we've had to use the clock as more of a benchmark in terms of gauging where we are with things," Foley said.
No matter what happens at nationals, though, Lessard's senior season leading up to her final meet will be one to remember.
Individually, she was named Landmark Conference Female Swimmer of the Year, the third consecutive year she has earned the honor. She won the 200- and 400-yard IM races, as well as the 200-yard butterfly, at the conference's championship meet.
Her team also had another successful year, winning the conference for the third consecutive season. At the conference championship meet, the Crusaders took first in all five relay races, in four of which Lessard swam.
"To be completely honest, my senior year has been picture-perfect," Lessard said.
"It was just perfect, and not in the way that we got everything, but it's just that we had worked so hard and it all paid off...(to) get told I'm going to nationals finally -- that's just icing on the cake."