Year In Review: Ocean City's Amanda Nunan finished her high school swimming career as one of the state's best everBy DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Want to know how difficult it is to beat recently graduated Ocean City swimmer Amanda Nunan in a distance swimming race? It took someone who currently is enrolled at the United States Naval Academy to do it. And that’s when Nunan was just a 14-year-old freshman. And she lost by just 25 hundredths of a second.
Casey Lawson, who graduated from St. Rose (Belmar, Monmouth County) in 2015, probably doesn’t even know this, but she’s the only girl who has ever beaten Nunan at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions — in EITHER the 200- or 500-yard freestyle events. Nunan went 7-for-8 in championship races during her career — that means she won seven individual state championships. What Nunan was able to accomplish during her four years swimming for the Red Raiders qualifies her as one of the best swimmers in state history. If you want to find somebody to argue that assertion, good luck. You’ll be searching for a while.
Oh, and just to top it all off, she also helped lead the Ocean City 400-yard freestyle relay team to top-5 finishes in the state in each of her four seasons.
“She’s an amazing athlete, and an amazing girl. My first impression of her was that she’s a champion,” said Red Raiders coach Steve Warrington, who took over the program when Nunan was a junior.
You need a legal pad to jot down all the accomplishments Nunan accrued during her four years as a Red Raider. Not only did she win those seven individual championships, she also helped lead Ocean City to four South Jersey titles and an overall state championship, in 2016. Oh, and she also just happened to be a four-time Press of Atlantic City Swimmer of the Year, and the state swimmer of the year in her junior and senior years. And she earned a scholarship to the University of Tennessee. And she attended the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.
She’s done it all while artfully avoiding as much media attention as possible.
“I don’t know if we’re ever going to see that again. It’s really incredible what she can accomplish when she puts her mind to it. She’s not loud, and her ego doesn’t get to her. She doesn’t praise herself enough; she’s very quiet and subdued. You almost don’t even realize she is standing there when she is there. But when she’s in the water, she can definitely walk the walk and talk the talk,” Warrington said. “Whatever she does, she just doesn’t make a big deal about it. The first year I was coaching her, at the Hackneys, she was getting nominated for Swimmer of the Meet, all these different awards, and she was just chatting with her friends and not even thinking about what was going on around her. I was like, ‘Amanda, did you hear what they said? They announced your name.’ She wins the biggest award of the meet, yet she was very nonchalant about it.”
Even Nunan herself is a bit taken aback now when thinking about everything she did during her time at Ocean City.
“It was surprising. From my freshman year, coming in and not really knowing what to expect, to senior year and having won a state championship all four years, I was pretty excited about that,” she said.
And as a kid, she didn’t even like swimming.
“When I was younger, I was kind of forced to do swimming by my parents, so I kind of didn’t want to admit that I was good so maybe I wouldn’t have to do it,” Nunan said. “But, by the time I was 10, I was like, ‘well, maybe I’m not that bad at this.’ I was reluctant to get into swimming. I was scared of the water. I was into dance and stuff like that.”
High school swimming is unlike any other sport, in that the elite swimmers rarely practice with their high school teams. Instead, they work out with their club teams, in Nunan’s case, the Egg Harbor Township Seahawks. It’s not always easy for the elite swimmers to assimilate themselves into the high school scene, but Nunan said the girls at Ocean City always treated her like any other swimmer on the team.
“I had done some USA swimming, so I kind of knew what high school swimming was going to be like. But it’s more of a team atmosphere, and I really liked that. It was definitely fun. The reason I did high school swimming was because of the girls I met. I loved being a part of the team, and I really liked to help them out. And I hated to let them down. That would be my biggest regret, if I were to ever let them down,” Nunan said. “Everyone has their own type of personality, and it was so fun when we all came together. They are all my best friends. That meant the world to me to be a part of this team, and all the girls were so welcoming. I don’t normally go to the practices, so they could have hated me, but they were so welcoming and we had so much fun together. I gained a lot of leadership skills during my time at Ocean City, and I’m really thankful that the girls on the team were so welcoming and allowed me to be a part of that team.”
“I knew it would take a little bit of give and take with how I handled her because she’s a very independent swimmer. So, I wasn’t going to try to monopolize her time because I knew that wasn’t going to happen. She was always going to be at that level where she was better where she was (with her club team) rather than me trying to get her to come to my practice,” Warrington said. “I talked to her about it, told her what I was going to do with (the school team) and how I wanted her to contribute. I wanted her to be a leader, set an example and be there when I needed her. That’s pretty much what I told her my first year, when she was a junior.”
When Nunan became a senior, Warrington asked more of her, and she responded in the way he hoped she would, he said.
“Her senior year, she was a captain and I said, ‘I’d love for you to be a captain, but I need you to be more proactive with the team.’ She had to step it up a little more than she did as a junior, and she responded great. She was there when I needed her and went above and beyond her responsibility as a captain, and did a phenomenal job with the freshmen and the rest of the team,” he said. “I saw that a lot more this year. She went above and beyond what I thought we were going to get from her. The other two captains were going to be more of a presence at practice and on deck, but she surprised even me. She made every attempt to get there when she needed to be there, and she really led by example.”
During her first two seasons, Nunan helped lead Ocean City to South Jersey championships, but the Red Raiders could never get past powerful Chatham in the group stages. In 2016, Ocean City finally got over the hump, and they couldn’t have done it without Nunan.
She anchored the 400 freestyle relay team, and Ocean City had to win that race to win the state championship. When she entered the pool, she trailed Chatham’s anchor swimmer by several yards.
“She was definitely my ace in the whole, and I said that to her time and again. She was willing to do everything possible to be a representative of the team. If there was a spot I needed to throw her into at the last minute, she could do it, whether it be a relay or an individual event she normally doesn’t do, she responded. That’s one of the things I loved about her as an athlete,” Warrington said. “I keep going back to that moment, too. That’s one of the things that will stay in my mind forever, how it all came down to that one last relay, that one last swim. It was phenomenal. You never want it to come down to that last relay, but you know you have your best relay in that event, and they should win. Seeing her coming up on the block and (having to make up time), I knew she could win. It was just a matter of hitting every turn and making a strong finish. Within that first 25 yards, she already caught up to the girl. I was like, ‘that’s it, it’s over.’ I started jumping up and down because I knew we had it. I had my best swimmer and it’s coming down to her in the last event, it’s like, ‘hello?’ I knew right away, as soon as she hit the water.”
Ocean City won that event, and edged Chatham, 86-84, to win the Public B state championship.
“That 400 free relay, that definitely sticks out to me. Thinking about it right now — it was, what, a year and a half ago? — it still gives me anxiety,” Nunan said. “I just remember everyone being like, ‘Amanda, you can’t lose this race.’ I was like, ‘OK, but no promises.’ Luckily, we didn’t lose. We were a little bit behind, so that got me really nervous. I thought to myself, ‘don’t even look, just swim.’ I don’t even remember the race, I just remember touching the wall. That was the best moment ever. I kind of figured we won when people were pulling me out of the pool. That was the best moment ever.”
Moments like that came to define Nunan’s career, and her ability to focus and perform when the pressure is at its highest is what made Nunan such a special high school swimmer, Warrington said.
“You hate to say she’s gotten too many awards, because she deserves every one of them. I don’t know if she’s getting tired of being the person everybody always talks about, but she is. But she doesn’t let that get to her head,” he said. “She continues to just do what she does, and that’s one thing that separates her from so many others — she takes care of business.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays