Emma Gleason: Free of Sugar, Full of Talent


Grant Herbek

This year, as a junior, Emma Gleason was a finalist in the 100 Fly, finishing fifth in the state. Gleason has qualified for state all three years of her LHS swim career so far, earning All-State recognition her sophomore and junior years.

Emma Gleason started swimming when she was in fifth grade and has since fallen in love with the sport. She’s made countless sacrifices to compete at the level she does, including cutting sugar out of her diet. This has paid off, as she finished in fifth place for the 100 butterfly event and 12th in the 200 freestyle at the state meet this fall. As a junior, Gleason has received All-State recognition two years in a row.


Jumping In

Before she started competitive swimming, Gleason was a gymnast. Junior Anna Heard, a friend of Gleason’s, shared that “it was noticeable that [Gleason] wasn’t enjoying what she was doing, which was gymnastics, and [she] always seemed to be getting injured.” In fifth grade, Heard encouraged Gleason to join the CATS Aquatic team with her.

Gleason shared the moment that she knew she wanted to competitively swim: “[At a meet], just watching [Heard] swim, I remember thinking, I was like, ‘Dang, I want to be that good one day, that would be so awesome.’ Ever since then, I’ve started coming to practice more and really focusing in.”

Her swimming career began with the CATS Aquatic Team, run through Libertyville and Vernon Hills High Schools. Her freshman year, she switched to Patriot Aquatic Club (PAC), which practices at Stevenson High School; she still swims with PAC and head coach Kevin Zakrzewski.


In The Pool

Without fail, everyone interviewed for this story identified Gleason’s most defining characteristic as “hardworking.”

“That’s easy,” Heard said, when asked. “[Gleason] is the most hardworking person that I know… when she has goals, she does anything she can to meet them.”

Gleason’s sisters, twins Avery and Paige, who are both freshmen, explained that her dedication to swim never falters, as she rarely misses a practice. Gleason couldn’t recall the last one she missed, sharing that she plans her schedules around practice.  

Competitive swim requires its participants to make sacrifices, especially for someone competing at Gleason’s level. In eighth grade, Gleason made the decision to cut sugar out of her diet. Four years later, she’s stayed committed to that choice, explaining that eating sugar feels foreign to her at this point.

Another sacrifice she’s had to make involves her social life.

“Usually high schoolers go out on Friday nights,” Gleason explained. “On Friday nights, with club seasons especially, I have practice from 6-8:45 p.m… and then I have morning practice on Saturday.”

Gleason’s mom, Cindy Gleason, further explained this over the phone: “There’s not a lot of time for socializing, so when other people are having sleepovers or going to parties, she’s going to the pool.”

During high school season, when swimming is a fall sport, Gleason described the atmosphere as positive and happy: “Everyone’s super close-knit, everyone’s super happy and wants to be there, everyone always brings a whole lot of energy to the table every day.”

Club season, on the other hand, brings with it an underlying level of stress for Gleason and her teammates. Being on a team with a handful of junior national qualifiers, the level of intensity and competition is much higher than that of the school team.

“Everyone’s still having fun [during club season], but there’s still that stress there. With high school season, it’s that release of stress that’s nice to have,” Gleason said.

Gleason doesn’t mind the sacrifices she makes because how she looks at it, the drawbacks are outweighed by benefits. The relationships she’s formed through the sport make giving up so much of her time worth it.

“Everyone that I swim with, high school team or club team, you create a close bond just because of how much time you spend with them,” Gleason described. With other sports, athletes spend lots of time practicing, but she explained that swim requires another level of commitment. She’ll practice four to five hours a day, six to seven days of the week.

Though this might seem overwhelming, Gleason doesn’t think so: “You create a bond with [your team], so the sacrifices, you don’t really feel it as much,” Gleason said.

A three-time qualifier, Gleason has gone to state with her team since freshman year. Her freshman-year coach, Mr. Erik Rogers, who has since resigned from the position, gave her advice that has helped her deal with the stress of competing at such a high level.

She said he told her “just try to take it all in because the next coming years, this is the atmosphere that you’re going to be taking, so you want to take it and see how to deal with it and not let it crack you.”

Sophomore year, Gleason explained, was more stressful. She barely qualified for the final round in the 100 butterfly race, which instilled a sense of doubt in the back of her mind.

“[That] year, it was stressful, but I definitely knew how to deal with the stress just from being at those high-level competitions a lot more and having more of that experience,” explained Gleason.

This year, Gleason finaled in the 100 butterfly, ending in fifth place, which is an improvement from last year, when she finished ninth in the same event. On top of that accomplishment, Gleason finished in 12th in the 200 freestyle.

Gleason has been awarded the All-State recognition her sophomore and junior years. This means that the coaches in Illinois decided that she was among the top swimmers in the state.


Out of The Pool

One of Gleason’s favorite things to do besides swim is volunteer with a Special Olympics swimming team, Stars, run through Libertyville High School. She appreciates the light-hearted atmosphere and its contrast to her intense daily life.

“It’s super fun to hang out and coach [them] because they’re just genuinely happy people, and it’s nice to be around that,” she said.

Heard explained that Gleason’s hardworking personality transfers to her school work, sharing that “she’s also one of the smartest people I know, and I don’t know how she does it because she swims so much.” Heard touched on other aspects of Gleason’s personality, sharing that she’s kind and always someone she can look to for a laugh.

Paige and Avery backed this up, sharing that following in their sister’s footsteps is “a lot to live up to.” The pressure they feel doesn’t come from their parents, coaches, or even teachers, but instead the association that comes along with being related to the well-known name of Emma Gleason.

“She’s probably one of the most modest people you’ll meet because she never wants to say anything about [herself],” Mrs. Gleason emphasized. “It’s not about necessarily winning accolades, but she wants to be better every time.”

Former LHS swimmer Emma Richert was a senior when Gleason was a freshman, and she served as a mentor to the young swimmer. Over email, Richert described Gleason as “independent, caring, and [she] always puts others before herself. Swimming is kind of her life, but she will never hesitate to make time in her busy schedule for friends and family.”

With college right around the corner, Gleason has been looking at schools with strong biology programs, as she plans to major in that subject, then go into pre-med and eventually to medical school. Currently, she is being recruited by six schools, all with strong biology programs.  

“That’s one thing I made sure to have, just in case something goes wrong and I’m unable to swim anymore, I’d still be able to [pursue] what I want to do,” Gleason said.

Confident she’ll be swimming at a Division I school, that’s the extent of the information she’s willing to share at this point. Gleason added that her college decision will be finalized around the end of this school year.