In the pool and the classroom, Briarwood graduate Sadler McKeen proves hard work pays off

By Emily Sparacino
Photographs by Dawn Harrison and Contributed

Disciplined, motivated, hardworking, goal-oriented, driven and creative are the first words 18-year-old Sadler McKeen’s mother used to describe him.

“From the time he was very young, he always worked real hard to do what he needed to do,” Alison McKeen said of Sadler, who graduated from Briarwood Christian School in May.

He has done what he’s needed to do, and more, to stand out in each area of his life, it seems.

Well-rounded could be added to the list of attributes that define the North Shelby teen.

In academics, Sadler excelled in the Honors and Advanced Placement classes he chose to take in high school. At the end of his senior year, he held a 4.57 grade point average and earned an honors diploma.

He also held multiple leadership roles in school and community organizations throughout his high school career.

Sadler served as president of the Student Government Association his senior year, vice president of fundraising (treasurer) his junior year, freshman class president and was co-chair of Briarwood’s and Spain Park High School’s Relay For Life event his junior year.

“We helped raise money and get sponsors for the event, and we helped run the event,” Sadler said.

He was a member of National Honor Society and Mu Alpha Theta (Math Club).

Sadler said his favorite subjects in school are physics and math, but added, “There are not many classes I don’t like.”

But for someone to fully understand and appreciate Sadler’s work ethic and success, his swimming must enter the conversation.

Sadler was captain of Briarwood’s swim team, and was a member of the club swim team at Lifetime Fitness.

“My first year of swimming was when I was 5 years old, summer swimming at Heatherwood Country Club,” he said.

That was 13 years ago, and swimming wasn’t the only sport he wanted to pursue.

When he was in the seventh grade, Sadler tried running cross-country, but one of his ankles started giving him problems.

Alison took him to the doctor, and X-rays revealed Sadler had tarsal coalition, a rare condition in which an abnormal connection forms between two bones in the foot.

Tarsal coalition is hereditary and appears in adolescence, Alison said, but neither she nor her husband, Scott, have it.

Sadler’s doctor told him that he wouldn’t be able to participate in sports involving running.

Although the news was unexpected, he wasn’t out of options.

Swimming, the sport he had embraced since he was 5, suddenly became his primary focus.

“We felt like God had already prepared us for that news by having us in that sport,” Alison said. “We were thankful that it didn’t affect what he loved to do.”

Sadler said his favorite stroke is freestyle. Tarsal coalition complicates his breaststroke kick, so he avoids it and the individual medley (which includes the breaststroke) and focuses on the backstroke, freestyle and butterfly.

All students that swim for the school swim year-round for a club team, and for two meets a year, they represent their high school, according to Alison, who is Briarwood’s swim team sponsor.

“It’s been fun to watch,” she said of Sadler. “He’s put in a lot of hours.”

His investment has produced a generous return.

Sadler has won three state championships in the last two years and has been a finalist every year in high school and an automatic qualifier for the National Interscholastic Swimming Coaches Association High School All-American in the 200-yard and 500-yard freestyle.

He is a two-time USA Swimming Academic All-American and is ranked No. 1 in the state on

He won the 500-yard freestyle as a junior at the state high school meet, and both the 500- and 200-yard freestyle as a senior.

He holds the all-time state record 1A-7A in the 500-yard freestyle.

Sadler was among several students nominated by Briarwood faculty as “Senior Standouts” for the Shelby County Reporter’s graduation section.

“This (record) is an amazing accomplishment alone, but combined with the numerous leadership roles and extracurricular involvement Sadler has, it can speak not only of his talent and dedication to his sport, but the ability to balance academics, leadership, service and athletics with remarkable excellence,” his nomination form read.

“He’s very goal-oriented,” Alison added. “That’s one reason swimming worked so well with him. He was a strong math student … and being timed (in swimming), he responded very well to that from a young age.”

Sadler’s success in swimming thus far has earned him a partial scholarship and a spot on the University of Notre Dame’s swim team.

“He will have the opportunity to earn more money each year toward school,” Alison said. “They’ve set milestones for him he can achieve. Their coaches are fantastic. We’re excited about him having a chance to swim with them.”

He also has been accepted into the university’s Mendoza College of Business. He said he is still contemplating his career choices, but is considering finance and law school.

Dr. Shawn Brower, Briarwood’s high school principal, called Sadler a “renaissance man in every way.”

“He is a scholar, a gentleman, an athlete, a godly leader and a loyal friend who has great charisma, a winsome spirit and a personality that naturally attracts other people to him,” Brower wrote. “We have been extremely blessed at Briarwood Christian School to have a young man of such high character and stellar virtue as Sadler McKeen. We feel it an honor to be able to call him one of our students and alumni. We have high confidence that he will be successful in whatever he pursues as he follows God’s call upon his life.”

His Senior Standout nomination echoed Brower’s sentiments, describing Sadler as an “outstanding student and a role model to his peers.”

“He has dedicated himself to helping others and improving the school environment at Briarwood High School through his involvement in numerous extracurricular activities,” his nomination form read. “In each of these roles, a level of character and integrity is necessary along with the ability to lead others. Sadler encompasses all of those attributes and many more. Sadler is a genuine leader who others want to rally behind. There are some people in life who must work at being a leader and those who are born with the natural ability to lead, and that is Sadler.”

Alison said Briarwood’s youth group has been a solid outlet for Sadler during his high school career, too.

“As a parent, we are very thankful for the Briarwood youth group that he’s been involved with over the last four years,” she said. “He has had a lot of great mentors. I think his church involvement has helped make him who he is.”

Sadler’s nomination form said his church, camp and volunteer service opportunities would fill a page if they were all listed.

“Sadler McKeen truly is a one-of-a-kind student and athlete. He is full of compassion and grace for other students, always leading with an air of confidence but yet one of humility,” Director of Counseling Services Tara McNeal wrote. “His light shines bright at BCS. When I look at Sadler and all he has accomplished, I see a young man that emulates and exhibits all the qualities I hope my own children will one day possess. I have been blessed to be a small part of this remarkable young man’s journey.”

As for Sadler, his response to everything he has achieved to this point is: “It feels good.”

“It just shows that hard work pays off,” he said. “What problems you have, you work through them and persevere.”