Makaela Hill first met Jenna Gwinn when they were teammates on the Hunting Hills summer swim team in the 11-12 age group.
Ever year they would collect multiple first-place medals for the Hammerheads and they became close friends at the pool located on the outskirts of Catonsville.
“Jenna is who I’ve known the longest,” Hill said. “My entire swimming career I’ve been with Jenna. We’ve swam relays together on every team that we’ve been on.”
Hill, a 2020 Catonsville High graduate, and Gwinn, a 2019 Mount de Sales graduate, are still together and still winning together in relays and individually at Division I UMBC.
The pair recently completed impressive performances at the East Coast Athletic Championships in early December. The UMBC women finished second with 1,909 points behind Columbia University (2,218) at ECACs while the UMBC men won the title convincingly with 3,075.5 points.
At the ECAC meet, Gwinn, a junior, captured the 100 and 200-yard breaststroke and swam the breaststroke for the gold-medal winning 200 and 400 medley relay teams.
Hill, a sophomore, swam freestyle in the same medley relay victories and was on the second-place 200 free relay. She was second individually in the 50-yard freestyle and third in the 100 free.
Gwinn swam 1:01.69 in the preliminaries of the 100 breaststroke and won it in 1:02.15. Her lower time made her an NCAA “B” qualifier in that event.
The B Standard qualifying time is 1:01.84. The A standard qualifying time is 58.46.
“I definitely had goals in mind for my 100 breaststroke, but NCAA B cut was a really good surprise,” Gwinn said. “It was something I wanted, but I was anticipating maybe doing it at conferences, but I was happy to achieve that goal first and now I can hopefully further my goals at conferences.”
Gwinn, who set a meet record in the event, is hoping to better the mark at the America East Conference championships, which will be held Feb 10-13 in Worcester, Massachusetts.
New UMBC coach Matt Donovan took over the position April 1 and only saw limited action, along with the rest of the team, which had a shortened season because of COVID-19.
“I was here for three weeks last year going into America East and I wasn’t really in love with Jenna’s style of breaststroke, but you are not going to change something with three weeks to go, especially when I am the new guy in town,” Donovan said.
Little did he know when Gwinn watches swim meets, she focuses on technique.
“The technique is really neat to watch, especially breaststroke, everybody has a very different stroke,” she said.
Donovan approached her after the season.
“After her last race, I said, ‘How do you feel about changing your breaststroke?’ and she was basically, ‘Well, if you think it’s going to make me faster let’s do it,’ and within a week’s time she immediately made changes. So, she is very in tune to technique and very aware of how the technique can benefit her particular event, breaststroke,” Donovan said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever been around somebody of that age, and I’ve been doing this for 10-plus years, that was able to switch techniques almost in a day and that’s what I appreciate most.”
Seeded seventh, Gwinn earned silver in the 100 breaststroke and was fourth at the America East Championships in 2021.
Hill’s work ethic is what stands out the most for Donovan.
“She is just a workhorse and she will swim any event at any time,” he said. “She certainly excels at mid-distance and sprints, but she will swim anything at any time and she loves the challenge. She loves to work, loves to train and she doesn’t like it when I say we are going to have an easy day.”
“I’m typically the kind of person that has to keep swimming in order to get better, like taking a day off is fine, but taking two days off in a row and I get back in the water and I feel like a slug,” Hill said. “Definitely, that consistent training style and the new coaching style and switching things up a little bit has definitely helped me grow. They are definitely pushing me more, that’s for sure.”
Hill’s hard work paid off this season in UMBC’s 151-148 victory over rival Towson University.
Hill swam the anchor leg in the final event — 400 freestyle relay — helping the Retrievers earn their first victory over Towson since 2006. They had lost the previous seven meetings.
“It was very stressful because when I dove into the water we were in third behind by like an entire body length and I was like, ‘Oh no, Oh shoot,’ but I ended up pulling through and I got us second so that was pretty great.”
The four points for second place instead of two for third clinched the victory.
“Beating Towson and winning relays at ECACs have definitely been my most favorite accomplishments because I’m always so proud of my teammates and I’m really happy that we were able to do so well,” Hill said. “It feels really great to be part of something that can last a legacy and that I actually helped to contribute in.”
Gwinn, who has a double major in public health and social work, played club lacrosse until she got to high school and knew she had to make a decision on which sport to pursue.
“Freshman year, when I did pick between lacrosse and swimming, I guess it was because I was so much more passionate about swimming. Like, I’d do bad at a lacrosse game and it was like OK move on, but if I did that at a meet I would be very upset,” she said.
In addition to swimming at Mount de Sales, she also swam for the GBSA at CCBC-Catonsville and coached at Five Oaks.
But swimming the breaststroke is her main focus.
“I definitely am best at breaststroke and I also just enjoy it the most,” she said. “I do enjoy IM and 50 freestyle, but I think that most people would be able to tell that I am most passionate about breaststroke.”
While Gwinn has three older siblings, Hill, an economics major, is an only child and meeting Gwinn at a young age in the pool sparked her competitive desire.
“My mom always made sure to give me that competitive spirit,” said Hill, who also swam for the Catonsville YMCA and Retriever Aquatic Club. “She would always say ‘Don’t you dare let Jenna Gwinn beat you,’ so Jenna’s best stroke is breaststroke and my worst stroke is breaststroke.”
They average 18 hours a week in the pool and two hours lifting, but the friends also like getting away from the pool.
“I like when we go to like Ellicott City or something,” Hill said. “We would go on, like, day trips after Saturday morning practices last year and it was always so much fun just to spend time with the team, because we are always spending time with each other, but if you want to relax in a different environment, it’s so nice.”
Being locals makes them ideal tour guides to help bring in more talented swimmers from the state.
“When you talk about Michael Phelps (Towson High graduate) and Katie Ledecky (Bethesda native) to say that Maryland is not a swimming state, you have literally two of the greatest swimmers of all time living in this state, so this state has pedigree,” Donovan said. “You can put this state up against California, Texas, all the big ones. There is tremendous swimming here. We want to keep the local kids local.”