#SwimMomMonday: A Conversation with Debra Gemmell

SwimSwam proudly presents a new series, called SwimMomMonday in which “ordinary” swim mom Anne Lepesant talks to “extraordinary” swim moms about the similarities and differences we experience in raising swimmers. Here Anne talks with Debra Gemmell, mother of 2012 US Olympic team member and 2014 Pan Pac gold medalist in the 10K open water event, Andrew.

1. What is your background? Were you (are you) a competitive athlete?

I am definitely not an elite athlete but participating in sports has always been a major part of my life. I grew up in a small town with a big extended family. TV time was reserved for Friday nights at 8:00pm; all other times you were outside playing till dusk in some pickup game, skiing, ice skating, tennis or swimming in the summer etc. I am comfortable playing most sports but can’t do anything well (except in my dreams). That doesn’t mean I am not competitive, just the opposite. If I play, I play to win.

2. When did you first realize you had an exceptional athlete on your hands?

Exceptional athlete – 2009. Andrew’s first major senior international meet was World Championship in Rome where he won Silver in Open Water 10K.

Exceptional goal oriented athlete – in elementary school. Andrew attended a small school in Delaware. Around second or third grade, a teacher wrote in his report card that Andrew was extremely focused and competitive in everything he did. She thought he was a natural leader but was worried how he would internally cope with always wanting to be the best.

3. How have you managed to balance your athlete’s school / sports / social life / family life?

From a young age, Andrew’s number one priority has been his education with swimming second. I never had to remind him to do his homework, study for a test and as unbelievable as this may sound, I never had to wake him up for a 5AM practice. He set his goals, and took responsibility for putting himself in a position to reach those goals.

Everyone surrounding Andrew has been very supportive of his dreams. But we have also been supportive of one another so that we could be the best parent, coach or mentor to help Andrew realize his goals.

4. How differently do you mother your other children?

Andrew is my only child.

Debra and Andrew Gemmell at Golden Goggles. Photo: Mike Lewis

Debra and Andrew Gemmell at Golden Goggles. Photo: Mike Lewis

5. What is the best part about being a swim mom?

Walking with him through this incredible journey! The opportunity to meet National and UGA swimmers, parents and coaches is very rewarding. The swimming community, from age group swimming to National level, is a tight knit competitive family. Even if Andrew is not swimming a meet, I still watch online to cheer everyone on.

6. What has been your biggest challenge?

Balancing work and traveling to meets. I look at the schedule in January and prioritize what meets I would like to attend. Even though Andrew graduated from UGA, I’m really disappointed I will not be at SEC’s this year. GO DAWGS

7. What is your favorite memory of your child’s swimming career?

Tough question as there are so many. I would have to say 2012 Olympic Trials but not just for the obvious reason that he made the team. Andrew missed the cut in the Open Water 10K. I met up with him right after the race, trying to hold back my tears. Andrew was disappointed but the first thing he said was, “that’s open water swimming and that’s what I love about the sport. Tomorrow I meet with my coaches and figure out plan B to make the team”. So watching my son handle adversity, refocus his goals and then achieving his new goal was incredible. That day I was so proud of his inner strength and the man he had become.

8. Do you get nervous watching him/her swim?

Yes, all the time. I often wished that Andrew swam the 200 free, the perfect balance between enjoying watching your child swim, but not suffer too long. I used to think watching the mile was difficult until Open Water came along. A race that lasts 2 hours and you don’t always know how your child is performing. Andrew laughs and tells me to just watch the last 5 minutes but I can’t. Thank goodness for twitter and the USA open water coaching team for keeping us moms updated.

9. How have you handled disappointing races/meets?

When he was young I would be there for him if he wanted to talk and if not, I redirected his attention to something fun. No matter what happened in the race it was always the same from me, DID YOU HAVE FUN and I love you. I purposely did not know what Andrew’s personal best times were or his specific goals for a meet. I left that to the coach so that I could just be the mom.

10. What advice do you have for other swim moms?

Invest in a good seat cushion and/or volunteer to be a timer. Being a timer gives you the best seat in the house.

Seriously though, the best advice I could give swim moms is to try to relax and enjoy the moment – simple advice but hard to accomplish.


Victoria - Isabelle - Anne - Caroline - Madeleine

Victoria – Isabelle – Anne – Caroline – Madeleine

Anne Lepesant is an ordinary swim mom. Her four daughters have been with Swim Pasadena since 2004 and now two swim in college (Caroline is a junior at SCAD Savannah; Victoria, a sophomore at Princeton) and two in high school (Madeleine and Isabelle attend Pasadena High School). In this series, Anne explores the question: “ordinary” swim mom to “extraordinary” swim mom, what it’s like to raise truly exceptional swimmers? What experiences have we all shared? Where do our paths diverge? Stay tuned for some interesting #SwimMomMonday conversations.



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Shawn Meyer
7 years ago

Love the answer to #7 – it WAS truly one of the most inspiring examples of re-focusing and re-setting goals I have ever seen! Persistence and perseverance richly rewarded and well-deserved.

About Anne Lepesant

Anne Lepesant

Anne Lepesant is the mother of four daughters, all of whom swam in college. With an undergraduate degree from Princeton (where she was an all-Ivy tennis player) and an MBA from INSEAD, she worked for many years in the financial industry, both in France and the U.S. Anne is currently …

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