Volume 78 / Number 9 - July 30 - August 5, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since


Manta Rays swimming coach Luis Sinche, left, and team captain Ellen Swanson

She’s a wonder both onstage and in swimming pool

By Judith Stiles

Fourteen-year-old Ellen Swanson of Greenwich Village breathed a deep sigh of relief on the last day of school, knowing she had made it to the finish line of eighth grade.

She managed to juggle the demands of school with being an accomplished swimmer and captain of the McBurney YMCA Manta Rays swim team. And if that wasn’t enough for one girl, she wedged the studying and swimming in between 27 performances of “Alice in Wonderland” at the Children’s Aid Society, in which she played the March Hare.

Swanson has gracefully balanced the world of competitive swimming with the thespian side of her brain, even if it meant gobbling down a cold dinner in the few precious minutes between swim team practice and play rehearsal.

Ironically, the play of “Alice in Wonderland” is about a New York City Alice who became overwhelmed with the demands of school, piano lessons, book club, French classes and ballet. Swanson’s fast-paced life mirrored the story of Alice. However, Swanson has been able to cope just fine, due to her supportive parents, Lee Burnley and John Swanson, who provided a lot of help and tasty sandwiches.

“When Ellen really wanted to do 27 shows, plus rehearsals, along with the demanding swim team schedule, we sat down and talked about this as a family because it affects all of us,” said Burnley, looking back on her daughter’s hectic lifestyle.

Still in eighth grade, Swanson was determined to embrace the life of a competitive athlete along with acting on stage, even if it meant almost no time to hang out with pals. She rose for school at 6:50 a.m. and hurried off to I.S. 89 in Tribeca, where she plowed through eight periods of classes on a typical day. A 2:50 p.m., dismissal allowed for a half-hour pit stop at home, before she rushed off to a Manta Rays practice at the McBurney Y on W. 14th St. near Sixth Ave. At the YMCA, she did “dry land” training for a half-hour — lifting weights or running on a treadmill. Then, Swanson would jump in the pool at 5 p.m. for laps and a rigorous workout. During the theatrical season, she left practice early to go to rehearsals from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. and then home to do homework before she fell into bed.

Swanson’s grandmother, Joan Burnley, wistfully remembered the era when life was less pressured for children. Gone are the days when they had occasional piano lessons and played outdoors until the sun went down. However, she acknowledged the benefits of a busy lifestyle, and went on to praise her granddaughter’s accomplishments, such as her 2007 M.V.P. award and her 2005 Most Outstanding Swimmer Award.

Amidst the rigors of going to school and performing onstage, Swanson also came in third in the YMCA 2008 City Championships in the 100-yard butterfly, with a time of 1.07.69. This winter in the state championship competition held in Buffalo, she placed 10th in the 100-yard butterfly, with a time of 1.07.04. In the 50-yard freestyle competition, Swanson felt especially proud because she improved her personal best with a time of 27.29.

“On the drive home from the states, I went to McDonald’s,” Swanson noted gleefully, admitting it has become a fun ritual after big swim meets.

Because so many medals have been added to the collection that hangs off her bedposts, her mom had to stuff a towel underneath to keep them from clanging. But bragging about medals has been of little interest to young Swanson, as she kept steering the conversation back to her love of swimming.

“As a child, I wanted to stay in the water all day,” she recalled with delight. “I loved the feeling of gliding through the water, and in Cape Cod I used to hang on the tail of my dog Bean and swim for hours in a pond.”

With school over, the play done and a great academic year in the books, “Ellen In Wonderland” is looking forward to a glorious summer of gliding through open water without lanes, a stopwatch or any competitors in sight — except perhaps Bean, who is welcome to swim alongside her.

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