Topeka — With a seed time dangerously close to the meet record, Free State High freshman Courtney Caldwell couldn’t help but arrive at the Class 6A state swimming championships hoping to make the rowdy Capitol Federal Natatorium even noisier by setting a new mark in the 50 freestyle.
She didn’t even have to wait until the finals to make it happen.
Caldwell raced Friday in the prelims to a Class 6A state-meet-record time of 23.49. That beat her old personal record of 23.71 as well as the previous state mark of 23.57, set in 2006 by Topeka’s Shara Stafford, now a senior swimmer at the University of Missouri.
Though her goal for the weekend was to break the record, Caldwell was shocked when she turned to look up at the clock and saw what she had done.
“I wanted it, and I went and got it,” she said.
The stage might have assisted her record time.
“It’s actually a completely different level of competition than I thought that it would be,” the FSHS freshman said of her state debut. “The atmosphere is just so upbeat, and you feel good.”
Caldwell’s incredible tear through the water was the highlight of a successful day for Free State, which kicked off the afternoon by earning two top-10 finishes in the diving finals. Both juniors, Annie Soderberg took fifth place and Brooke Leslie placed ninth.
Pleased with her finish, Soderberg said she wasn’t as worried about her dives compared to her 2011 state experience.
“Last year I was by myself, so having a teammate with me I was more relaxed,” she said.
Leslie joined her teammate in the finals by putting together her most successful meet of the season. She said she arrived Thursday for the prelims just hoping to get to the semifinals later that day.
“Every other dive meet that I’ve done, I haven’t made it to the second round, and I’ve messed up or something,” Leslie said.
What changed this time around?
“I guess just luck,” the cheerful junior said.
Soderberg thought there was more to it than that. She said Leslie had improved bounce on the board, creating more height for her dives.
“She was more confident after the first round,” Soderberg said.
Lawrence High had to feel good about its Friday performances, too. The Lions started the prelims off right by qualifying third in the 200 medley relay, thanks to Miranda Rohn, Gretchen Frick, Heather Cistola and Annie Odrowski.
Cistola followed that up by qualifying second (1:56.88) in the 200 free, finishing behind Topeka-Washburn Rural champion Haley Molden, who established a meet record of 1:48.13.
Already with two spots in the finals secured, Frick was top qualifer in the 200 IM, finishing in 2:10.27, an LHS record she didn’t even know she had set.
“I wasn’t even thinking about that,” Frick said of her initial reaction.
The key was a strong backstroke, which she said is usually her “weakest link.”
Frick later qualified second (5:07.48) in the 500 free. Again, Molden set a 6A meet record with 4:50.37.
“I knew everyone was going to be swimming really fast,” Frick said, “especially Haley.”
LHS also qualified for the finals in three other events. Cistola qualified fourth in the 100 fly, Rohn was seventh in the 100 back, and the 400 free relay team of Frick, Odrowski, Rohn and Cistola qualified fifth.
Rohn just missed out on a finals spot in the 100 fly, qualifying ninth.
Along with Caldwell’s top qualification in the 50 free, she was top qualifier in the 100 free in 51.86.
FSHS advanced to the finals in four more events. The 200 medley relay team of Lucy Sirimongkhon-Dyck, Kat LaFever, Kate McCurdy and Caldwell qualified fifth. Sirimongkhon-Dyck earned fourth in the 100 back and sixth in the 200 IM. The Free State 400 free relay team of Eliza Anderson, Morgan Miller, Sirimongkhon-Dyck and Caldwell qualified third.
Ninth-place finishes by Anderson in the 100 back and the 200 free relay team of Anderson, Katie Kimbrough, Alexa Malik and Miller put them in the consolation finals.