ELLSWORTH — No matter who’s in the water, Ellie Clarke knows their name.
Since she was just 3 years old, Clarke has been a staple at the Down East Family YMCA pool. After spending a decade and a half doing everything from taking swim lessons as a youth to competing for DEFY’s club team and Ellsworth High School, she can rattle off everyone from her teammates and coaches of nearly 15 years to beginning swimmers more than 10 years younger.
“My mom put me in the pool when I was very young, and I loved it right away and haven’t stopped since,” Clarke said. “If I couldn’t swim, I think I’d honestly be lost a little bit because it’s just what I’ve always done. The people and the swimming community here are like a second family to me.”
With another swim season about to begin, Clarke is back to spending nearly every day at the place she’s been competing for as long as she can remember. As a high school senior, she’s hoping to make her final year representing Ellsworth in her favorite sport her best one yet.
After years of swimming competitively with the DEFY Dolphins, Clarke began doing so for the varsity team during her freshman year in 2015-16. The school’s girls’ team consisted of nine members the year before, and with the Eagles even younger following the departures of several seniors, their newcomers had opportunities to prove themselves right away.
Clarke did so in her first competition, a dual meet against Bangor in which she won the 100-yard freestyle and competed as part of the Eagles’ 200-yard medley-winning squad. She became a Penobscot Valley Conference champion two months later with wins in the 50- and 100-yard freestyles, setting team records in both events.
“That first year was really good because I showed that I was able to come in and have success right away,” Clarke said. “When I was able to swim really well like that and then became captain as a sophomore, I was really excited to go out there again and build on that.”
After learning of her captaincy, a rare honor for an underclassman athlete, Clarke was eyeing another successful campaign. Instead, she was unable to compete for length stretches of both the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons as she began dealt with the ramifications of a chronic condition known as multidirectional instability. With the condition causing the socket in her left shoulder to loosen, the pain was often too much to bear.
Despite those periodic setbacks, Clarke was able to compete in the conference and state championships both seasons. She took home first place in the 100-yard backstroke at the 2017 PVC championships and won the same event last season’s PVCs while also adding another 50 freestyle crown.
“A lot of kids who have what Ellie has would have walked away a long time ago, but that’s just not in her DNA,” said Matt Montgomery, who taught Clarke swimming lessons at DEFY and later coached her on the club team. “She’s just somebody who embodies toughness and resilience, and she’s done whatever it takes to be there for her teammates.”
Whether swimming for DEFY, where she’s competed on four record-setting relay teams during her middle school years, or the high school, Clarke’s coaches have seen her steer athletes of all ages toward the pool. With the varsity and YMCA teams sharing a venue, DEFY’s up-and-comers and veterans from years’ past are never far from one another.
“Those younger kids really idolize and adore these high school athletes, and Ellie has definitely encouraged a lot of them to stick with the sport,” Ellsworth head coach Jim Goodman said. “When these girls are learning hands-on from someone who’s been through the Y’s swim program and then has had the success she’s had in high school, they say, ‘Wow, I could be like her.’”
This year, Clarke is one of 10 returning swimmers who finished in the top 20 in at least one category for Ellsworth at last year’s PVC girls’ championships. Lilja Hanson, Caitlin MacPherson and Abby Mazgaj are among the other returnees, as is Clarke’s fellow co-captain, Miriam Nelson.
Having strong performers across a multitude of different events is a boon for this Ellsworth girls’ team, which Goodman and Montgomery believe could the Eagles’ strongest in years. Although Clarke’s favorite race format is the freestyle, her willingness to compete in any event asked of her adds yet another strength.
“She’s an all-around good swimmer, and I can throw her in any race and know she’ll do it and do well in it,” Goodman said. “The type of flexibility she has with that is the type of flexibility we want all of our swimmers to be able to reach.”
As to where swimming will take her in the future, Clarke isn’t sure just yet. She’s expressed interest in competing at the NCAA level, but the big thing on her mind at the moment is her final high school season, which begins when the Eagles host Hampden Academy at 7 p.m. next Tuesday, Dec. 11.
“It’ll be interesting to see what’s next, but for now, this is it,” Clarke said. “It was always going to be exciting because it’s my senior year, but to have the girls we have and to know how far we can go makes it even better.”