Camdenton's Josef Bernabe becomes first Laker ever to qualify for state swim meet

Camdenton junior Josef Bernabe always liked being around the water.

Thankfully, he always had a lake nearby to go jump in, but he began swimming competitively for the Tridents Swim Club out of Laurie at the age of 11. Fast forward six years later and Bernabe is the first ever Camdenton swimmer to qualify for a state meet. Camdenton coach Anna Leezer entered consideration times for state on Friday and Bernabe received a pleasant phone call from his coach on Sunday, letting him know the good news.

“I did not know what to feel. It just felt amazing when she told me I was going to state,” said Bernabe who also played football for the Lakers this fall. “I was surprised because I did not get much practice because of football, but I worked hard at meets.”

Leezer was likely a little less surprised knowing of Bernabe’s work ethic. The coach was an assistant for the Tridents when Bernabe began his competitive swimming career and she was the one who encouraged his mother, who is the doctor of Leezer’s daughter, to bring Bernabe out for swimming all those years ago.

“In the past two years when I’ve been his coach, he splits time between football and swim and he dedicates himself to being an athlete,” Leezer said of the junior. “He is always working 110 percent when he is able to come to my practices and drives others to swim faster. He has natural talent for it, but he worked hard to get where he is.”

Being a dual-sport athlete can be challenging, especially for the sheer physicality required for football and swimming. He went to swim practice when he could, missed a few football practices for swim meets during the week and was ready to go in the pool for a meet on Saturday morning after a game on the gridiron Friday night. However, Leezer said the challenge also comes with its benefits.

“He is very sore from football and after a few days from swimming he feels better. It is calming, it eases muscles and they are not all balled up anymore,” the coach pointed out.

What may be most impressive is that the Camdenton swimming program is still in its infancy and produced a state qualifier in just its second year of existence.

“I think it says a lot about the program. Our local teams here in Lebanon (YMCA Lebanon Yellowjackets) and Laurie (Tridents Swim Club) have done an amazing job of bringing up some swimmers that are definitely dedicated to the sport,” Leezer said of the two programs that feature Laker swimmers. “Those swimmers have not had trouble with high school venues and showing they mean business.”

Bernabe will take on 32 of the best Class 1 swimmers the state of Missouri has to offer in the 50 freestyle. This year, MSHSAA (Missouri State High School Activities Association) voted to split boys and girls’ swimming into two classes which allowed for more swimmers to qualify for the state meet. For each event, there are automatic qualifying times that automatically give swimmers a state bid and now there are also consideration times where swimmers who did not make the automatic qualifying time can get a shot at state. Bernabe was among the latter group of swimmers.

“Three of our relay teams also had consideration times,” Leezer remarked. “Even though we had fast times, we would have never been considered to make state and we were one or two places from our relay teams making it also.”

Bernabe will swim in the preliminary heats on Thursday at noon at the City of St. Peters Rec-Plex in St. Peters, Mo., looking to earn a spot among the top 16 for the finals on Friday at 10 a.m. Bernabe said he will generally stick with what has worked for him all season.

“For the 50 free you have to go all out because it is a down-and-back race. I’m going to eat normal, sleep early and spend plenty of time in the pool,” he said. “You have to swim fast every meet you have because it might be your last one.”

Leezer also had a few words of advice for the swimmer who has come a long way since he hopped in the pool for the Tridents.

“He needs to remember two things,” the coach said of the swimmer who has shaved off four-tenths of a second from his time in the 50 freestyle a season ago. “He is great at what he does and just swim his heart out and use the energy of the crowd around him as motivation to leave everything in the pool and make a personal record.”

Whatever transpires over the next couple of days, Bernabe said he is looking forward to using this experience to drive him forward for his senior season. Leezer is hoping more swimmers will join him in 2018 and the Lakers can grow their ranks and make the young program even stronger.

“This year we wound up with seven swimmers and one was hurt so we finished the season with six. They did not get to experience relays like we would have if we had more on the team,” the coach stated. “I would like to use it (state appearance) to draw in more swimmers. Even if they have never swam before like Addison (Stanley), he wound up doing well. If you have the work ethic, willing to try and be coachable and listen to critiques, you can do it. It is not easy, but you can do it.”

Bernabe's leadership will certainly be counted on going forward as well and the coach noted that he will be a great representative for the Lakers at state.

“What you could learn from Joey is that he is very humble in everything he does. He likes to have fun, but at the same time he takes his accomplishments with pride and humility,” Leezer noted. “I think that it shows he is a very strong person, but he is a leader and likes for people to not be caught up in the pomp and circumstance of everything. He likes people to have fun and do their best at whatever they choose to do.”

Bernabe, for one, has had plenty of fun in the pool and time will soon tell what the next couple of days with the best swimmers in Missouri has in store for him.