Conner McBeth and Zachary Bell both are state medalist swimmers. 

That’s quite an accomplishment considering neither hails from a high school — McBeth for Neshannock and Bell for New Castle — that has a swimming pool. Also, neither really has teammates close to their talent level. There are eight athletes who swim at Neshannock and two girls at New Castle, though none are at the level of McBeth and Bell. 

McBeth, a sophomore who last year earned a fourth-place medal in the 100-yard freestyle, said he was worried at the beginning of the season, partly because there’ isn’t constant competition during practices. McBeth and Bell practice together at the New Castle Community YMCA pool and are teammates with the YMCA’s Silver Sharks team under the direction of coach Anita Murphy. 

“At the beginning,” McBeth said, “I wasn’t getting the fast times because I don’t have bigger competition, so I’m not going to be swimming those faster times. It was getting frustrating because I wasn’t getting good seed times. Once WPIALs came, I started dropping time again and all the worry went away.”

Bell said the process can be lonesome being the only person on a team. Both swimmers said they have friends they talk to from other schools who they see frequently at meets.  

“It’s interesting,” Bell said. “It gets a little bit lonely because there’s no one else to talk to or anything. I just learned my way to talk to other people who are on other teams.”

At the PIAA Class 2A Swimming and Diving Championships last week at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, McBeth swam his way to the best preliminary time in the 50-yard freestyle (21.36) before coming back in the final for a second-place finish, touching the wall at 21.26 and just .04 behind the first-place finisher. In the 100-yard freestyle, McBeth swam to a 45.98 time to claim third place. Bell, meanwhile, swam to fifth place and a podium spot in the 200-yard freestyle in a time of 1:43.85.

For their efforts, McBeth and Bell have been selected as the Lawrence County High School Athletes of the Week sponsored by Washington Centre Physical Therapy and selected by the New Castle News sports staff.

McBeth, a son of Jeff and Karen McBeth, wants to swim collegiately and has interest in majoring in the medical or aeronautics field. He said it’s sometimes difficult training by himself.

“Whenever you try to do it on your own, in my opinion, you feel like you’ve worked really hard but in reality you didn’t go as fast as you really could,” McBeth said. “When you look up at the board and see not a time you wanted to see, it’s a little disappointing.”

McBeth continued, “It would be a lot more fun to have a big group of my friends from school on this team and be able to travel with them to all these meets, but it’s just me a lot of the time. Once I get to the meets, I meet up with the friends I’ve made from other teams.”

McBeth and Bell both are training this week for the YMCA state meet and then will take a week off before heading to the YMCA nationals in April. 

Bell, a son of Julie and Thomas Bell, is the only member of the Red Hurricane boys swimming team. 

“It’s hard representing for a school with barely anyone with you,” Bell said. “Usually you don’t win meets as a team because you’re all by yourself and other teams have numbers.”

When he was four years old, Bell was diagnosed with a learning disability determined to be autism spectrum disorder. He also has asthma. Despite those obstacles, Bell signed a National Letter of Intent to Division II Salem University (W.Va.) on a swimming scholarship. He will also study business in the hopes of one day owning his own diesel mechanics business. 

“The social aspect is something to get used to,” Bell said. “There’s no one else to talk to. It’s just you. You just have to find your own ways to make it fun.”

McBeth and Bell, the latter of whom qualified for the PIAA meet each of his four years of high school, now set their focus on this weekend’s YMCA state swimming championships. Action from Penn State University’s McCoy Natatorium begins Friday and runs through Sunday.

Digital editor

Pete Sirianni is the News' digital editor. Previously, he worked at The Bradford (Pa.) Era. Sirianni is a 2016 IUP graduate, earning a degree in journalism and public relations. Contact him at or on Twitter at @PeterSirianni.

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