Champions of Two Decades

Though Sarah Mulligan and Lexi Sundgren swam for NA nearly forty years apart from each other, their lanes converged earlier this month.


Crushing the forty year-old Women’s 500 yard freestyle record, Lexi Sundgren displays the same characteristics as Sarah Mulligan who set it in 1982.

The year was 1982. Michael Jackson dropped the earth-shattering album Thriller, Prince William was brought into the world, and NASH senior Sarah Durstein set a record-breaking 500 freestyle time that would last at North Allegheny for four decades. 

Earlier this month, the longstanding plaque was finally put to rest. Topping Durstein’s time by 2.59 seconds at the 2022 WPIAL Championship on March 3rd and 4th, NASH junior Lexi Sundgren saw her name take her 40-year predecessor’s place on the hallowed plaque. 

Dropping a time of 4:51.89 in a 20-lap race, Sundgren consistently remained under 30 seconds per every 50 yards, the equivalent of two laps. To put it in a layman’s perspective, a one-second drop would have checked the boxes of a successful race, but Sundgren shed over eight.

Mulligan’s plaque was the oldest record on the women’s board by almost three decades. photo by Jess Daninhirsch

So what is the secret to both Durstein’s and Sundgren’s success?

Head Coach Kirk “Corky” Semler, who led the team for 35 years until his short-lived retirement and recent return, claims that both Durstein and Sundgren mastered the formula of a super-athlete.

“Both ladies had a work ethic that is characteristic of most of the great athletes that have come through this program in that neither Sarah nor Lexi missed practices or yardage,” Semler said. “Both girls possessed a ‘stubbornness’ that enabled them to persevere through tough training and close races, yet they were able to let go of that characteristic to become receptive to their coaches’ direction for change.”

While neither swimmer possesses a tail and fins, what they do share is a genuine love for the water, a trait that both of them credit to their mothers.

“My mother, Nancy, did a great job of making sure we were active–but not in organized sports–just playing,” Durstein, now Sarah Mulligan, told The Uproar in a recent interview. “I can emphatically say I never wanted to quit or felt burnt out, and I credit my mother.”

As a mother of six, Nancy Durstein was in need of any break she could get. And lucky for her, the Durstein household was situated near the McCandless Swimming Pool. From the minute the gates squealed open to the moment the lifeguards shooed them out, a betting man would place money that a Durstein was in the water. The only time they left was to hop on their bikes to deliver the afternoon newspaper.

In acknowledgement of her outstanding swimming accomplishments, Sarah Mulligan was inducted into the North Allegheny Hall of Fame in 2003.   photo courtesy of Sarah Mulligan

Similar to the Dursteins, the Sundgren family also lives a short walk away from their own pool, Ingomar North Swim Club. The burnt faces that returned home during the summer nights were a testament to their time spent splashing around. 

Upon the sudden realization that swimming was an activity that she wanted to pursue for more than a summer afternoon, Lexi begged her mother to sign her up for ANSC, the Allegheny North Swim Club. Initially, her mother–who once swam for North Allegheny– was hesitant about putting her daughter through the same trade-offs that she had to experience years earlier on the team.

“My mom has always been super supportive of my swimming career, but that being said, she was also realistic when I first started,” Sundgren said. “Because she was a swimmer in high school, she wanted to make sure I knew just how much of a lifestyle it becomes.”

Monday through Saturday– 11 months a year– the swipe of a hand slaps the buzzing of the alarm clock to silence. Another day, another practice.

The internal thoughts of “what if I skipped?” and “I can’t wait until this ends” cloud the head with bouts of negativity as the thought of putting on a swimsuit for the twelfth time that week causes a sigh to escape. In the end, inherent tenacity wins over as both feet are lifted out of bed before dawn and plopped on the floor, gambling with the hope that all of the work will be worth it.

“I’d stay at the high school after practice and do my homework before I taught lessons or lifeguarded, and my mother would bring me my dinner,” Mulligan recalled. “I’ve told my three kids about my high school schedule, and they think I’m exaggerating.”

Sundgren dominated the playing field at the WPIAL Championship earlier this month, touching the wall almost ten seconds before the second finisher.       Kristina Serafini- Tribune Review

While the high school swimming season covers the months of December through March, a year-round training schedule requires athletes to stay in the pool. With only two weeks off in March and another two in August, breaks are scarce.

Six days a week, the pool is packed with around 40-50 swimmers. As they vie for a spot in the fastest practice lane, lane one, every workout is another chance to compete against one another. With two to three double practices a week (dryland included) and hour-long yoga sessions on Monday, the opportunity to practice like they play is laid out in front of them. 

“Swimming is my life,” Sundgren said. “But I’ve never known a life without waking up for morning practice and staying after school for more. And I’m fine with that.”

Sundgren’s commitment to her goals was the eventual code to her record-breaking victory–that and returning coach Corky Semler.

“Although the actual training was similar to last year, there was a lot more of everything– more yardage, more technique, and more hours. The introduction of quality swimming is what promoted my success,” she said.

Obviously, even after coming out of retirement, [Coach Semler] knows what he’s doing. I think that is why I’m so excited for Lexi to have broken my record.

— Sarah Mulligan, NA '82

Mulligan echoed Sundgren’s feelings about Semler.

“He is the one coach that I can attribute all of my success to in the pool. He prepared me physically and mentally. Obviously, even after coming out of retirement, he knows what he’s doing. I think that is why I’m so excited for Lexi to have broken my record,” Mulligan said.

Following Sundgren’s victory at the WPIAL championship, Semler connected the two champions on the phone. Mulligan was taken back in time as Sundgren shared her reaction to her swim just hours before.

“I believe I know the feeling Lexi had when she looked up at the timing board because it is a ‘wow’ moment! ‘Wow, I went that fast!? Wow, I’m so happy! Wow, I’m grateful that all the hard work paid off,’” Mulligan said.

For Sundgren, over a week has passed but the ambition has only grown stronger. As she arrives at the PIAA State Championship today, she hungers for another successful swim. Despite overpassing her goal just days ago, she still shoots for a faster time, a chance to top her own record. 

But who is to say that record will not last for 40 years, too?