Anna Francisco jolts awake.
It’s 5:20 a.m. and her alarm is blaring, piercing through the still silence of the early morning hours and signaling the start of a long day ahead.
It’s dark outside as Francisco climbs out of bed, eyes full of sleep, and grabs the swim bag she prepared the night before. Her parents, older sister and two dogs Julio and Chica are fast asleep as Francisco leaves her Jackson, New Jersey, home and begins the 30-minute trek to the YMCA.
It’s December. The day after Christmas to be exact. A little more than a week after Francisco’s 18th birthday.
The first 3 1/2 years of Francisco’s high school career are behind her, and graduation is only a few months away. She’s on break for the holidays, and while school isn’t in session until next year, swimming most certainly is. This is her last first day of “Hell Week.”
After finishing her three-hour practice, Francisco heads home for a quick breakfast, a short nap and some homework before doing it all over again in the afternoon. And then the next day. And the day after that. Each day until New Year’s Day.
Earlier in the month, Francisco had received an acceptance letter to the only school she applied to, Lehigh University. She would start college next fall, and while she would be the first in her family to attend the university, she wasn’t the first — or even second — Francisco to pursue swimming.
Francisco’s swimming roots started growing years ago when her dad made his own debut as a swimmer and continued with the sport until college.
Her father wanted his daughters to follow the path he carved as a Francisco fish, so when Francisco was 7 years old, she started swimming for her first competitive team and the only club team she would ever be a member of: Ocean County YMCA. She enjoyed the sport so much, she started juggling two teams after joining the swim team at her high school, Jackson Memorial.
While Francisco had to leave both teams when she moved to Bethlehem to begin her freshman year at Lehigh, she couldn’t leave her inner swimmer behind.
During September of her senior year of high school, Francisco went on a recruiting trip to Lehigh and said it was the deciding factor in her choice to swim for the university.
“Right when I got here, all the swimmers were very welcoming,” Francisco said. “Every time we had a meal together, it would be a different person sitting next to me, wanting to get to know me. They just made the team seem super awesome.”
She committed to Lehigh for swimming on Oct. 6, 2016. A year and a day later, Francisco finds herself at the onset of her career as a collegiate athlete in a meet against Patriot League opponent Boston University.
Like any typical first-year, Francisco is learning to navigate decisions over which clubs to join as well as which major to declare, where to spend the awkward time gaps between classes and how to minimize the hikes up to the dorms.
But unlike many first-years, Francisco spends her early mornings and late afternoons working out and practicing in the lap pool at Taylor Gym. She thinks spending more hours in the pool and at the gym than she used to will have a positive effect on her swimming and eventually pay off.
While Francisco has to adapt to her new time-consuming and demanding practice schedule, she said her teammates are accepting, which has helped her adjust.
“I already feel like family with them,” Francisco said.
The team’s motto is to be a positive influence on others and lead them to be better versions of themselves. This mindset resonates with Francisco, and it’s something she realized she embodied before even coming to Lehigh, in what she refers to as a “defining moment” in her life.
Each January, the University of Maryland hosts an event called “Winterfest” in a massive natatorium that’s home to two swimming pools, one of which is an Olympic-size competition pool.
In 2016, many of Francisco’s Ocean County YMCA teammates decided to sit Winterfest out, but the meet’s grueling nature was not enough to deter Francisco from swimming in it.
She was the only girl from her age group to attend and was left to fend for herself.
Francisco’s club team doesn’t prepare for the meet, so many swimmers don’t swim their best times, but she wanted to prove to her teammates that the meet was worth going to anyway.
Francisco swam preliminaries and finals in each one of her events and stayed positive despite how tired her body was and how much her muscles ached.
“I think that was a major turning point in my life where I realized that you just have to be positive throughout everything,” she said. “It really helped me because at that meet, somehow I did a best time in every single event that I swam.”
Francisco said the next year, all of her teammates wanted to attend Winterfest.
The same year as her personal successes in Maryland, she went on to become the New Jersey YMCA State Champion in the 100-yard backstroke and a three-time All-American.
In addition, Francisco placed 16th in the 100-yard butterfly at the YMCA Short Course National Championship, a meet she’s attended almost every year since 2012. She said flashing cameras and eruptive applause defined the moment she made her way to the podium to receive her award and a bouquet of flowers from her teammates.
At that point, Francisco had no idea where swimming would take her or that she’d be swimming at a Division I university.
“I’m so happy I’m here,” she said. “Everything led me to this moment. I knew it was the right decision.”
Francisco’s older sister Mia has been watching Francisco’s journey from the sidelines her whole life and said Francisco has made her and her whole family proud.
“I just never tell her how proud of her I am,” Mia said, “but she’s really somebody I look up to, even though she’s my younger sister.”
Mia also swam competitively but stopped before high school. She’s now a senior at Ohio State University.
While the two sisters weren’t close as kids, they developed a friendship as they grew older. In high school they bonded over facing similar pressures from their parents to be good people as well as good students.
“She definitely has her head on straight and she just has a lot of passion for what she does,” Mia said, “and she’s also very compassionate at the same time.”
Senior distance freestyler Abby Thomson said Francisco’s unintimidating height of 5-feet-1-inch is misleading and described her as a standout freshman.
While Francisco may be a standout butterfly and backstroke swimmer, she said everyone is a standout in their own way and has their own specialties to contribute to the team.
Thomson said Francisco’s 100-yard butterfly and backstroke times are worthy of scoring in the top eight times, but definitely have the potential to place in the top 16 times, at the Patriot League Championships. Thomson hopes the team’s medley relays can place top three with Francisco’s help.
“We have only seen her times on a piece of paper,” Thomson said, “so once the season starts, I think everyone is kind of excited to see what she can do.”