Topeka Straight-faced, almost somber upon winning Class 6A state championships in two races Saturday afternoon at Capitol Federal Natatorium, Free State High freshman swimmer Courtney Caldwell finally allowed herself to relax and enjoy herself once she completed the final event of the meet.
Caldwell and Firebirds teammates Eliza Anderson, Morgan Miller and Lucy Sirimongkhon-Dyck had just finished fourth in the 400 free relay, but they celebrated as if it meant the world to them, embracing for a group hug, smiles stretching across each of their faces.
“We had a goal and we definitely achieved it,” Caldwell said. “We just wanted to maintain our sixth-place spot (in team points). I just felt so relieved that we did. It was a good feeling.”
Free State had no chance of catching 6A state champion Shawnee Mission East in points. Holding off rival Lawrence High, which entered the final event in seventh place, 14 points behind FSHS, quickly became the ultimate goal.
Considering the margin, it would have taken a Firebirds collapse in the final relay for the Lions to surpass them. But the FSHS swimmers, Sirimongkhon-Dyck said, were leaving nothing to chance after their 200 free relay team had a ninth-place finish in the consolation final wiped out due to disqualification.
“We really wanted to come back and get this,” she said after FSHS finished two spots ahead of Lawrence in the 400 free relay, noting that Miller’s best split of the season (58.06 seconds) made that possible.
It was after the relay that Caldwell allowed herself to stop “freaking out” with nervousness.
“It’s not setting in until now,” she said of her gold medals in the 50 free (23.7) and 100 free (51.37).
LHS, which finished seventh overall, stayed close to its rival with the help of its two leaders. Sophomore Gretchen Frick won the state title in the 200 IM (2:08.64) and took third in the 500 free, while junior Heather Cistola was runner-up in the 100 fly and third in the 200 free.
Like Caldwell, Frick and Cistola were named first team all-state.
Said Frick: “I think it’s really exciting that both of us got it, because Lawrence High is seen as the underdog in Lawrence.”
Frick’s 200 IM time beat the LHS record she set the day before at prelims by 1.63 seconds.
“It was really exciting,” she said, “especially since I was seeded first and I knew everyone was gonna be chasing me.”
Cistola’s goal for the finals was to improve upon her prelim finishes. She dropped a few tenths of a second off her time in both individual races. Taking second in the 100 fly (Shawnee Mission South’s Paige Meredith won in 58.75), Cistola added, was unexpected. The last chance she had to glance at the lanes around her, she thought “everybody” was in front of her. A strong finish made up the difference.
“I had no idea,” she said of her come-from-behind push. “I could not see anybody. I was so focused on just trying to place well for my team and get us points.”
Frick and Cistola teamed with Miranda Rohn and Annie Odrowski to take third in the 200 medley relay. The same group finished sixth in the 400 free relay. Rohn, named second team all-state, took sixth in the 100 back and ninth in the 100 fly, winning the consolation final. Odrowski was 12th in the 500 free and 16th in the 200 IM.
Firebirds Sirimongkhon-Dyck and Anderson were named second team all-state. Sirimongkhon-Dyck, a sophomore, was fourth in the 100 back and seventh in the 200 IM. A freshman, Anderson won two consolation finals. She placed ninth in the 200 free and the 100 back.
Kate McCurdy finished fifth in the 500 free and 11th in the 100 fly. Miller was 16th in the 500 free. Sirimongkhon-Dyck, Kat LaFever, McCurdy and Caldwell placed sixth in the 200 medley relay.
It was enough to make even the most nervous competitor smile.
“I am so proud of everyone on my team,” Caldwell said. “They stepped it up ridiculous amounts.”