CHATHAM, NJ - Chatham swim coach Frank DiGiacomo remembers it like it was yesterday. It was the first time he met Emily Gorham on the side of the pool five years ago.
"She was an eighth grader and she had come to watch her sister swim," DiGiacomo said. "She came over and introduced herself and said, 'Hi, I'm Jess's sister.' We've had a lot of conversations since then. She started off as a fan of Chatham and now she's the one people come to see swim."
No matter what happens this weekend when Gorham and her Chatham teammates compete in the NJSIAA Meet of Champions, there is going to be a melancholy feeling for DiGiacomo afterward. He knows this will be the last time he coaches Gorham.
"Over the last four years, Emily has been the most reliable swimmer I've ever had," DiGiacomo said. "I'm honored to have had her for four years and greatly saddened that she has to leave. Every year, it seems, I'm asking her to swim a different event and she always does her best. Most of the time, it's a guaranteed first place."
There were no guarantees last Sunday when Gorham was asked to go up against Ocean City's outstanding freestyle swimmers Ryann Styer and Amanda Nunan in the 50 and 100 free races. Gorham placed second in both races, and helped spark Chatham to a 95-75 win for the Public B State Championship.
"(The Ocean City coach) put Styer and Nunan in the 100 freestyle to try and steal first and second and Emily decided she was going to break up that party and take second," DiGiacomo said. "The turning point was that 100 free, where we broke it up."
Emily Gorham is the Hawk Allstate Chatham Athlete of the Week.
Gorham was a freshman when her older sister, Jess, was a senior on the 2014 Lady Cougar team that completed a four-year undefeated run with four straight state championships. Emily Gorham was part of a senior class that extended the Chatham streak to 103 straight wins and five titles before losing in the state final, 86-84, to Ocean City in 2016.
The win on Sunday allowed Gorham to end her career the way she started with a state championship, taking three state titles in her four years and extending Chatham's run to six championships in seven years.
"My sister still looks at all the results and she definitely influenced me," Gorham said. "Seeing my sister go undefeated for four years, I was hoping to make it a second generation of undefeated swimmers in the family. Even though we had two losses, I could not be more proud of the team. Just looking back on it, I could not have asked for a better group of girls to cheer for me and me for them."
DiGiacomo may miss Gorham's leadership more than her swimming next season. After Chatham lost to Scotch Plains by 21 points on Dec. 14 in the regular season, the 18-year-old Gorham was the first one to speak up on the bus ride home.
"She was telling them on the bus how we can get them next time," DiGiacomo said. "She told them, 'We’re going to work harder than them to get better and we’re going to beat them.'
"Being a captain for Chatham is a very difficult task. All the other swimmers look up to you. Emily always put the team before herself. Because of that, there are times she gets very emotional. She puts everything she has into swimming for Chatham. Because of the way she holds herself to a higher level and wants to compete and be the best she can be, that has rubbed off on other swimmers."
Gorham backed up her words in the state sectional final in the return match against Scotch Plains, winning the 50 free, the 100 free and swimming on Chatham's winning 200 medley and 400 free relays. The 97-73 win gave Chatham its seventh straight state sectional crown.
"Her drive to be the best increases the potential of our whole team," DiGiacomo said.. "The mentality that even when we're the best, we can get better. I try to instill that in my swimmers. Emily lives it. She's an amazing kid and a great athlete."
Gorham's best times this season include 100 back (100.47), 100 free (52.02), 50 free (24.13), 100 fly (59.11), 200 free (1:53.24) and 500 free (5:09.75).
At the Meet of Champions, the Bucknell University-bound Gorham plans on swimming in the 100 and 200 freestyle.
"She swims for the Scarlet Aquatic Club and whatever they're doing with her there is great because her freestyle stroke looks effortless," DiGiacomo said. "Her technique is so good that every point of her swimming stroke is a work of art. It's so smooth."
Gorham swims the butterfly on Chatham's 200 medley and is part of the 400 freestyle relay. Both Chatham teams are ranked No. 2 in the entire state. The 200 medley team of Jackie Crater, Alicia Iizuka, Gorham and Nicole Tingley are undefeated this season.
"I get very nervous and feel the pressure like everyone else," Gorham said. "I try my hardest not to think about anything until I have to. I just go out there there and try to make coach as proud of me as I can."
Editor's note: The Hawk Allstate Chatham Athlete of the Week is sponsored by the John Hawk Agency. John and his team have been protecting local families and business owners for over 12 years. Call them at 973-635-9494 for a new auto, home, life and business insurance quote this week and if you mention the Hawk Allstate Chatham Athlete of the Week they will make a $20 contribution to the Chatham Booster Club! To learn more, visit the agency website.