In nearly every aspect, Free State High swimmer Nolan Frank’s affiliation with Washburn Rural counterpart Grant Rogers has all the makings of a textbook high school swimming rivalry.
Both are masters of the backstroke, both have state swimming medals in their closets and both figure to battle for supremacy in the 100-yard backstroke at this winter’s state finals.
The only thing that seems to be lacking, in fact, is a healthy dose of mutual distaste.
“I joke about this a lot,” said Frank, who finished second to Rogers in the 100-yard backstroke (53.23 to 54.23) during Thursday’s Free State Invitational at the Lawrence Indoor Aquatic Center. “Grant is a really nice guy, and I would almost prefer it if he were a jerk, so I could just hate him and despise him.”
So while Thursday’s loss might have represented a rather unusual outcome for Frank — rarely is he not first to touch the wall in the event — he wasn’t exactly beating himself up afterward.
In addition to logging a career-best time in the 100-back, the Free State junior finished second in the 200-yard individual medley and helped Free State to second-place finishes in both the 200-yard medley relay and 400-yard free relay, teaming with fellow junior Ethan Fisher (first in the 200- and 500-yard freestyle) to lead the Firebirds to a second-place finish — their best of the season.
The matchup with Rogers, meanwhile, also afforded Frank the opportunity to test himself against one of the state’s elite — a former state champion in the 100-yard backstroke and likely the favorite in this year’s state meet.
“When you race, you want to race so that you know what the best is that you can do,” Free State coach Annette McDonald said. “‘Where am I’ so that you can get better. And that’s what (Frank) saw that today: This is where I am; what do I need to do to reach my goal?”
In Frank’s case, that goal is clear.
As a freshman in 2008, he placed 10th at state in the 100-backstroke. He followed it up with a fifth-place performance last season, and, with six weeks remaining before this year’s state meet, has his sights set on a top-3 showing this time around.
“First would be great,” said Frank, smiling. “But top three, I would be more than satisfied. I think that’s an attainable goal. I’m just going to put my head down and just focus on my own performance and see where I end up at the end of the season.”
Despite an approximately four-week layoff, meanwhile, the Firebirds showed little rust Thursday, tallying their best team finish this season and enjoying the fruits of what had become a rather monotonous stretch of practice.
“They were like, “Oh, you’re kidding; we’ve got to do this again?’” McDonald said of recent practices. “There was a lot of that.”
Free State earned three individual victories, while three team members — Evan and Tyler Smith (one-meter diving) and Fisher (200-and 500-yard free) — qualified for the state meet in their respective events.
Perhaps most encouraging, however, was the showing from the team’s collection of freshmen swimmers.
Connor Munk (500 freestyle), Josh Saathoff (100 backstroke), Nick Becker (100 backstroke) and Fletcher Koch (500 freestyle) all saw significant improvements in times — developments that certainly bode well in the long-term.
“They’re the future of the team,” McDonald said. “And that was really, really exciting.”