Competitive swimming isn’t for the faint of heart, which is why it’s right up Maggie Purcell’s alley.
The Southampton senior, who just finished her high school swimming career with medals in both the 50-yard freestyle and 100-yard breaststroke this past weekend at the New York State Championships, hasn’t exactly had the easiest road to success in the pool. Purcell was diagnosed with scoliosis—a sideways curvature of the spine—in the eighth grade, which made playing sports, such as field hockey, a tall task. She hopped in the water in seventh grade, though, and it’s been a chore to get her out ever since.
A large reason Purcell gravitated to the pool so much—other than a true love for the sport—was the scoliosis. Due to the condition, Purcell was forced to wear a back brace for 22 hours a day. But because she was bouyant while in the pool, Purcell didn’t have to wear a brace, so the more time she spent in the pool, the more she spent out of the brace—it was a win-win.
That relationship with swimming has led to Purcell’s next chapter in life. On November 1, she signed her letter of intent to swim at Division I University of Richmond. Purcell was courted by a few different schools, such as the University of Miami and Bucknell, but ever since Richmond contacted her last year, she had a feeling she would be attending the Virginia school. Richmond emailed Purcell just before she was about to swim at YMCA Nationals last April with the East Hampton Hurricane YMCA swim team.
“They said, ‘Hi, I’m here to watch you swim.’ And I was like ohhh, okay…,” Purcell explained. “Then I started talking to them. I visited the school, went through the whole process, went on their recruiting trips. So deciding has been a really long process, but, I knew that I was going to be signing today,” she said, in the lobby of Southampton High School, joined by family, friends and school officials.
Purcell said that Richmond’s continued success in the Atlantic 10 Conference, and its academic track record, specifically in its school of business, is what ultimately fueled her decision.
“They have a strong drive to do better, and me, being on a small team in East Hampton where there’s little competition, I saw Richmond as a great fit to push me even further than I’m pushed here,” she said.
When she’s not swimming during the school season, Purcell swims for the East Hampton YMCA Hurricanes club swim team, coached by Tom Cohill, who thinks Richmond will be a good fit for her.
“For the coach, it’s great when you get an athlete that embraces the hard work,” he said. “That’s been a big part of her success, the ability to do the hard work and reap the benefits.”
Cohill said one particular trait of Purcell has stood out just this season.
“One of the things that I saw in particular this year was how much she embraced the leadership role on the Hurricanes team, particularly when it came to the younger athletes, like 10 and under,” he said. “She really embraced working and helping with them at swim meets, while still having to perform on her own. To see someone that’s come up with the team and then embrace the younger kids that are coming up, the results are awesome, but that’s really cool.”
Southampton Athletic Director Darren Phillips attended graduate school at Richmond, and while he said he didn’t exactly steer her there, he just helped Purcell and her family in answering any questions they had, especially about the recruitment process, which can be an exciting but also difficult experience.
“The recruitment process is such a game in a way,” he said. “It’s a lot of stress and anxiety because you just don’t know—if I don’t take this offer, I’m waiting on another school, are they going to want me?
“I think she’ll be happy in Richmond,” Phillips added. “She seems to love the coach, love the campus. She’s definitely a special athlete and we’ll be lucky to see someone of that caliber come through here in swimming, at least until I retire.”
Purcell is also a Southampton Town lifeguard at Coopers Beach during the summer and therefore cross trains throughout the year, not only for swimming, but running as well. She is a key lifeguard on the Hamptons Lifeguard Association competition team, and will be one of a handful of East End guards representing the United States Lifesaving Association National team at the 2017 DHL International Surf Rescue Challenge, from November 30 to December 3, at Mount Maunganui Beach, New Zealand.
Being a lifeguard has certainly helped her in the pool, Purcell said.
“My main swim season is from the end of August until April, and then from April to August I’m training and preparing for preseason, but I’m also cross training, which makes my endurance level much better than normally just swimming,” she explained. “I’m running, I’m paddling, I’m swimming in the ocean, surfing, so that has made me a better swimmer all around.”
On top of being a highly competitive athlete, dealing with scoliosis for the majority of her high school career has forced Purcell to be a “team of one,” as Phillips put it, each fall swim season. Since Southampton doesn’t have a swim team, Purcell was one of a handful of independent swimmers from across Suffolk County throughout her career. She’s had the help of her parents, Julianne and Michael, her best friend Caroline Oakland, who is a fellow independent swimmer from Hampton Bays, and Cohill. Ultimately, though, without a “team” behind her, Purcell has been on her own for most of her high school career.
“I give her so much credit,” Phillips said. “When you’re an individual competitor, you’re like this team of one, and the dedication and commitment that you have to have is really high. You ride back with your coach, who is often your mom or dad, and that can’t be easy either. I think it shows the mindset that she has and the discipline.
“Swimming is just not easy. She trains year round, so really all of her time and effort and hard work has paid off,” Phillips added. “It’s great that it happened.”