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Oona O’Brien’s acting career might be starting to take off.
So the question for the Evanston freshman could be which comes first – an Emmy award or a state swim championship?
O’Brien has already made a career choice to pursue an opportunity for an acting project professionally, and that means her last 2021 appearance in the pool for the Wildkits came Saturday at the 43rd annual Trevian Relays at New Trier. The freshman recorded career-best efforts in seven straight swims last week and said she isn’t going to put her swim career behind her no matter where acting takes her.
Right now, it’s just on hold.
“I don’t think there’s any way you could tear me away from swimming, even if you tried,” she said after posting impressive relay splits as Evanston settled for a 12th place team finish (out of 16 in the field) at New Trier. “But I decided a couple of years ago that I really wanted to try to get some film and TV work, so I hired an agent to try. I really didn’t get anything after going to 100 auditions until I got a chance for this project.
“I’d have more absences from school than they allow, so I won’t be able to swim any more this year and I’ll have to finish the semester online. We’ll see what happens, but this is a great opportunity.”
O’Brien has already taken advantage of one opportunity, having moved into the varsity lineup as one of the top sprinters in the program in her first year. The fact that last year’s graduating class left holes in the lineup provided more opportunities for new or returning swimmers than most years at ETHS, but now O’Brien has emerged and would likely have competed on three varsity relays once the postseason came around.
Head coach Kevin Auger will miss her – in the pool and out of the pool.
“We’ll miss her, but we certainly wish her well in her other endeavors,” Auger said. “Having Oona on our team has been great for the entire team, not just as a swimmer, either. She’s been a good leader by example for a freshman. She started in Lane 6 (during practice workouts) and just kept moving up for us. She’s really made significant improvement.
“I expected her to make some of the time drops she made last week, based on her training, and she did have a one-day taper once we found out she’d be leaving. It would have been nice to see what she could do with a proper taper, but we don’t have that luxury this year.
“She swam particularly well last week and those were not just her best times, some of them were huge drops. We’ve worked on some underwater stuff with her and changed her stroke a bit, and she’s really adapted well. She’s also improved her technique a lot in the butterfly and now she’s swimming with her arms straightened out. I’m quite happy with the way her technique has improved, because ultimately that’s what will make her a better swimmer.”
O’Brien was the best of a tired bunch of Wildkit swimmers competing at the Trevian Relays Saturday. A lack of depth in a scoring format that combines the two swimmers per event entered by each school limited Evanston to just 86 points, far behind team champion New Trier’s 197.
She opened Saturday’s competition by anchoring the junior varsity 200-yard medley relay team with a time of 25.14 seconds, faster than any of her teammates in the varsity event. She also cracked the 26-second barrier with a best time of 25.81 in the varsity open 50 freestyle, good for 18th place.
O’Brien added a leadoff leg of 25.68 in the varsity 200 freestyle relay, and was clocked in 57.7 seconds for the JV 400 relay squad that was eventually disqualified following her leadoff leg.
Senior Lily Consiglio’s fourth-place performance in the 100 butterfly in a season-best 58.26 and some solid efforts by sophomore Monroe Stroth were other highlights for the Wildkits.
O’Brien is a product of the YWCA Flying Fish club program and, like any freshman, had to adjust to a different training regimen and a different coaching staff.
So far, so good, even though she’s cutting her season short.
“Being on this team has been so great and I’ve really learned a lot,” O’Brien said. “It was really hard for me to get back into swimming [after a layoff because of the COVID-19 pandemic] because I was used to always dropping time from one meet to the next. Then when I got to high school, I struggled for the first time and didn’t really drop times until lately.
“One of the things I love about high school swimming is swimming on relays with the older girls. It really feels like more of a team sport than club.”
“I knew it was possible [that O’Brien might face a conflict in-season], so it wasn’t a total shock to me when she and her parents told me,” Auger said. “When you get a kid who’s as nice as Oona, it’s a pleasure to have them around at all. I won’t bemoan the fact that she’s leaving. Acting is technique-based, too, and I think swimming might help her acting, and acting might help her swimming. As long as she has fun with it, that’s what’s most important.”
O’Brien began her “other” career as a model at age 9, with commercial and print work for American Girl and Sears, along with runway, e-commerce and video work for Nike, among others. She was the face of the luxury jewelry line Lana Girl in 2018-19.
In 2019, she was one of 11 young actors selected by Nickelodeon to study at the renowned Second City Training Center in Chicago. Oona continued her love for improv and comedy as a member of the Second City Youth House Ensemble and in local community theater.
O’Brien will be seen in the role of Devon, a potential karate student, in the fourth season of the Emmy-nominated Netflix series “Cobra Kai,” which is based on the 1984 movie “The Karate Kid.”