A “Leah Hayes” Google search generates 55,600 results in .58 seconds.

When you swim a 200 freestyle at 2:14.87, and a little later clock a 28.33 in the 50 free, both national age group records at the time, things like that can happen.

Especially when you’re 10.

A competitive swimmer since age 8, Hayes in 2017 became a charter member of the Fox Valley Park District Riptides, with which she’ll forever be synonymous. Nancy Hooper, Hayes’ coach from the start, became the fledgling program’s first (and current) coach at the same time.

Since then, Hayes has flicked the national record book like a string of dominoes, one age group at a time. In 2018, she was named Sports Illustrated Kids “SportsKid of the Year” and – poof! – Leah Hayes became a household (and worldwide) name in swimming circles and beyond.

In the past 10 months, alone, Hayes (now 16) has:

  • Won state championships at Kaneland High School in the 200 IM and 100 free, setting two state records in the process
  • Become the youngest American to ever go sub-2:10 in the 200 IM, doing so in the finals of the U.S. International Time Trials and qualifying for the 2022 World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, her first senior-level international team
  • Taken bronze at Worlds by shattering her personal best time in the 200 IM with a 2:08.81, breaking the World Junior Record and making Hayes the fastest 18-and-under U.S. swimmer of all-time
  • Won first in women’s 100 breast with a personal-best 1:10.49 in her debut at the Illinois Summer Senior State Championships held last weekend in Westmont

Her sights now laser-trained on making the U.S. Olympic Team and competing in Paris ’24, we caught up with Leah last week at the Vaughan Athletic Center before a final tune-up for the senior state meet and chatted about her meteoric rise to junior swimming fame, the pandemic setback, Riptides and the perfect day:

FVPD: The coverage seemed to really take off after the SI Kids SportsKid of the Year article in 2018. At some point, you had to realize that this is just the way it’s gonna be. What was your mindset in terms of handling all the attention?

LH: I didn’t know how it was going to be in the aftermath, but I know during that whole experience, it was a lot of pressure and felt very overwhelming. My family, specifically my parents (Tim and Jill Hayes), they really helped me through it by backing me up and giving me the support I needed.

FVPD: Time is precious to a swimmer. The window of opportunity is tight. How did the pandemic itself, or the restrictions it imposed, impact your development?

LH: It had a large impact on my swimming. The Vaughan Center, which is the main pool that I swim at, was closed for I believe three months. I was out of the water for just a month and my endurance had greatly decreased. All my hard work that I had previously put toward that (2020) season had diminished. It just took a very large toll on me and took some time to get back to where I was and get further.

I could barely swim a 100, which is four laps, and my main event is a 200. That’s where I was like, ‘Oh, no.’ It was quite a shocker and it was emotionally tolling to know I had regressed that much, but I’m back in business now!

FVPD: With all of the organizations, clubs, prep academies, private instructors, etc., designed to challenge and develop elite athletes, why did you choose to stick with the local park district’s program?

LH: Mainly because of my coach (Hooper). She’s very thoughtful and caring and she has such a keen eye toward technique. A lot of other programs don’t work on technique – they mainly work on endurance and strength. Our program is high on technique and all the others as well.

FVPD: A 10-year-old comes up to you and says, “I’m thinking about trying out for the Riptides, can you tell me a little more about it?” How do you answer?

Riptides is an extraordinary team. The coaching staff is so understanding and accepting. I’ve been with Nancy for my entire swimming career and that is because she is one of the nicest coaches I’ve ever met and she’s sincerely like family to me.

FVPD: You’ve got a day when swimming is in no way involved. How do you make it perfect?

LH: The perfect day would have to be waking up early and eating pancakes, because pancakes are the right way to start the day! I like working out in general, so I’d probably hit the gym here (at the Vaughan Center), and then I’d have lunch with my friends – probably a potluck, where we’d all bring a dish to pass – and then go home and watch movies with my family at night.

For more information about the Fox Valley Park District Riptides, visit https://www.foxvalleyparkdistrict.org/programs-events/fox-valley-riptides/.