I had forgotten what a championship atmosphere feels like. I’m currently on the pool deck of the Walter Schroeder Aquatic Center in Brown Deer, WI. The place is considered the best swimming pool in Wisconsin, but whether it’s in a dingy six lane pool with poor lighting or a place where Olympians swim, the energy that crackles in the air on the first finals night of a Conference Championship is palpable. For some, this is a stepping stone to bigger, greater things – the NCAA championships for example. For others, this is the culmination of a season of hard work, and it all comes down to this moment.
How fast can you go in a 500? A 200 IM? The 50? How much pain have you endured this year, and what are you willing to put on the line? Will you take a chance on yourself?
It’s one thing to write about the results – those static, dead times that bring an end to the possibility of the moment. It’s another thing entirely to watch the progress of the meet. In a way, witnessing a championship meet is like watching small segments of people being born and dying. There will be triumphs, there will be failures; there is hope, fear, determination. Music pulses in the background, and everyone on deck from the coaches to the athletes is trying to get In The Zone – that magical place where anything is possible.
And for the moment, it is.
The women’s 200 freestyle relay walks out to music and the place is so loud it’s impossible to hear the announcer. When these women step up – suddenly it’s the quiet before the storm. From the start, it’s Eau Claire, but Stevens Point gains on the second fifty. Amy Boritzke splits a 23.76 for Stevens Point. Stevens Point clings onto the lead, and La Crosse brings the heat on Eau Claire. Another 23.76 from Alexa Pronga builds Stevens Point’s lead. La Crosse is gaining – but not quite enough. A 23.23 from Mikayla Beuch, La Crosse’s anchor, for a final time of 1:35.89 and second place. Stevens Point takes the crown with a 1:34.92 by the team of Emily Neinhaus, Boritzke, Pronga and Amanda Walker. La Crosse fades to third in 1:37.30.
In the consolation final of the women’s 500, it’s a battle between Whitewater’s Stacey Kincade and Eau Claire’s Emma Smith at the halfway mark. Gemma Pillsburry from Stevens Point joins the hunt, and suddenly it becomes a race for second. At the 350, Smith is in clear control, leading by several body lengths. The battle for second gets tighter as Taylor Schaeffer (Whitewater), Kendall Thompson (Whitewater), Brittany Hilgendorf all join in for the tightest final. IT goes to Smith with a 5:11.73. In second is Thompson, splitting a 30.26 to close and claim the runner up spot by one one hundredth in 5:14.47. Third is Thompson in 5:14.48.
The championship final arrives on the scene. Out quickly at the 200 are Walker of Stevens Point and Sara Zemanovic from LA Crosse. At the halfway mark, Walker pulls away, laying her claim to the lead position. Zemanovic falls behind and Lisa Reed (Eau Claire) moves up, just a half body length behind in third at the 300 mark. Walker remains in clear control, while Reed fights to hold off Kayla Martin of Whitewater at the 300 mark. Martin begins to inch up on Reed, gaining a few hundredths with every turn. At the 450, she pulls ahead. Martin finds another gear, looking to chase down Zemanovic. Walker has finished in 4:58.74 – an NCAA B cut time and a new conference record. Second goes to Zemanovic in 5:06.31. Reed surges at the last moment to outtouch Martin. Reed finishes at 5:06.57, Martin at 5:06.65.
In the consolation final of the women’s 200 IM, La Crosse has the most athletes. The butterfly leg goes to La Crosse’s Anna Landgraf out in a 27.987. She holds onto the lead in the backstroke, though teammate Katie Nadeau puts the pressure on from the outside lane. Landgraf slows down a bit on the breaststroke leg, and Eau Claire’s Emily Behrens claims the lead with a 36.22 on that leg. Behrens leads to the wall, and claims the victory in 2:12.23. Second is Sarah Arteaga of Whitewater in 2:12.57. Third is La Crosse’s Mckenzie Vermeire in 2:12.80. Landgraf fades fourth – 2:12.82.
The finals of the IM walks out – this time the deck is pretty even. Whitewater has three athletes; Stevens Point and La Crosse have two. Out to an early lead on the butterfly leg is Allie Yemm of La Crosse in a 26.88, almost a second ahead of the next fastest. At the 100 mark, Yemm is still in clear control of her race. Noelle Anderson of La Crosse begins to move up on the breaststroke, as well as Stevens Point’s Hailey Kunavich in lane 1. Yemm retains her lead and turns ahead of the pack heading into freestyle. Amy Spaay of Whitewater starts making a case for second place coming down the homestretch. It is Yemm in 2:08.57, followed by Spaay in 2:09.61. Third is Anderson in 2:09.94.
The consolation final of the women’s 50 freestyle is rife with Eau Claire swimmers – there are five of them. Kristin Peters takes the win for Eau Claire in 25.31 from lane 5. Second for Whitewater in 25.35 is Grace Devine, the top seed going into finals. Outside in lane 2, Eau Claire’s Sophie Tallard-Sklare touches third with a 25.44.
Katy Perry’s Timber announces the arrival of the finalists for the 50 freestyle. They dance on their way out. What a difference between sprinters and distance swimmers. Stevens Point has four athletes in the top heat. Allie Hable claims the win in 23.66 for Eau Claire with an NCAA B cut. Second is Stevens Point’s Emily Neinhaus in 24.05. Third is La Crosse’s Mikayla Beuch in 24.19. All of the top three dropped time from prelims to finals.
Women’s 1 meter diving shakes out to shine the light of victory on Sierra Becker of Whitewater with a score of 443.40. Second place goes to La Crosse’s Jordan Anderson with 435.80 points. In third is Sara Axness of Eau Claire with 431.80 points.
The final event of the session is the 400 medley relay. My Lipstick by Lil’ Mama comes on, and the quartets march out with purpose, to the insane cheering of their respective teams. La Crosse is out in the lead after the first 50 of backstroke. Brooke Reynolds begins to build on the lead, setting up a huge gap between herself and the others. Second swimmer in the water for La Crosse. Whitewater’s Amy Spaay moves up via breaststroke working on that gap between herself and La Crosse. She outsplits La Crosse’s Leanna Schwartzlow by three seconds at the 50, and moves into the lead for the Warhawks, coming down the homestretch, almost three body lengths ahead of La Crosse. Whitewater has a huge lead going into the butterfly, looking to have Martin maintain it. The Hawks do not give up any ground on the butterfly leg. La Crosse sits in second. Eau Claire is in third. Whitewater laps River Falls . At the turn, La Crosse’ Sara Zemanovic is catching up to Kelsey Kohlbeck, but she manages to hold on to claim the victory. La Crosse is second. Eau Claire third. 3:49.68 for Whitewater, well under the NCAA DIII cut, and the time that was selected in 2013. The quartet finished a little under a second away from the WIAC meet record.
Team scores: La Crosse (233), Whitewater (222), Eau Claire (220), Stevens Point (195), Oshkosh (75), River Falls (55).
200 freestyle relay. The men are up – the whistle. The starter, and the ball is in motion. Stevens Point gets to an early lead on Andrew King’s 21.34. The Whitewater Warhawks make a big move – a 21.02 out of Benjamin Wynn to move them up into contention for second. Stevens Point is still leading. Stevens Point is on fire – touches in at 1:23.35 for first place. In second is La Crosse with a 1:24.19. Eau Claire is third at 1:24.73. The Warhawks faded to fourth – 1:25.52.
The consolation final of the men’s 500 freestyle starts with huge underwater action from Whitewater’s Joseph Devroy. He grabs the lead from the start and with every 50, continues to build on it. In second is La Crosse’s Garrett Runing, the top seed in the B final. Moving up also from the Warhawks is Andrew Staszak and Eau Claire’s Nick Stern. Devroy continues to outsplit everyone except his teammate Stazak. The battle for second is tight between Runing, Stern and Staszak. At the 300, they turn together. Stern starts edging past Staszak and Runing. Devroy is losing his lead with a 75 to go. Stern starts destroying Devroy’s lead, moving up. Devroy pours the power into his arms, but Stern has a kick going like a madman. Somehow Devroy finds a little extra, as does Runing. Devroy finishes first in 4:43.88. Runing is second in 4:44.55 on the power of a 27.53 last 50. In third is Stern at 4:44.70.
The final heat of the men’s 500 walks out to The Circle of Life from the Lion King, to rapturous applause. The deck is stacked in Stevens Point’s favor with four athletes. 437.33 conf record. In 2009. Luuk Dekkers of Stevens Point gets out to an early lead on the first 50. Teammate Evan Catani quickly catches and passes him. In the middle of the pool, Stevens Point athlete Hans Peters moves up to claim the lead, flanked by teammate Matthew Parks and Joshua Kanute of Whitewater. Kanute clings onto Peters, drafting off him at the 250 mark, about half a body length behind and just a hair ahead of Parks. Peters looks calm and collected in his stroke, but Kanue’s feverish tunnover is gaining on him. At the 400 they turn almost neck and neck. Dekkers has passed Parks and the game is becoming so close. Kanute and Peters split 27s on the second to last 50 and sprint home dead even under the flags. It goes to Kanute with a 26.09 final 60. He finishes in a 4:36.12 to beat out Peters’ 4:36.20. Both are NCAA B qualifying times. In third is Dekkers at 4:39.71.
The consolation final of the men’s 200 IM begins with side-breather Dalto Anderson of WD putting out a 23.52 in the butterfly leg for an early lead. On the backstroke Daniel Bielski catches and passes him. Moving into breaststroke, Ethan Bott of Stevens Point challenges Anderson for second, moving up to pull even with him. Anderson holds onto second and moves back into first by the end of the breaststroke leg. He pulls ahead of Beilski decisively in the freestyle, cruising home to victory in a 1:56.80. Second is Bielski with a 1:58.21. Bott is third – 1:58.72.
The final heat of the men’s 200 IM walks out. Out to an early lead on the butterfly is La Crosse’s David Flickinger -24.55. Eau Claire’s Alex Card moves up on him, from the back-flip turn through the breaststrtoke leg. Card posts a 30.50 split off the breaststroke. Flickinger chases him, but cannot catch up. Card claims victory in a 1:51.62 for the third consecutive year. Flickinger is second in 1:52.21, even with his impressive 26.54 final split. In third is Charlie Skinner of La Crosse at 1:55.51.
The consolation final of the men’s 50 freestyle is up. IF there’s such a thing as an early lead in a 50, Nicholas Kehlre has it. And it goes to Kehler in 21.54. Second is 21.72 to Nick Bietz of La Crosse and third goes to his teammate Nicholas Brehmer with a 21.75.
The A final of the sprint kings walk out to yet another fun song choice – the Pokemon theme song! Stevens Point has the top three seeds in the event from prelims. Stevens Point freshmen Sam Jekel claims the victory after breathing on the homestretch, touching in at a 20.91 to beat out Stevens Point freshman King (21.10). Third goes to La Crosse junior Erich Schnell (21.18).
Final event of the night is the men’s 400 medley relay. Much more stoic than their counterparts, the men’s relays march out, trying – some more successfully than others – to strip down to suits as they march onto the deck. Men in the water. At the 50, it’s La Crosse’s Stephen Hanko, followed closely by Stevens Point’s Kyle McNair. La Crosse keeps its lead, and their breaststroker Jesse Bambrell is the first in the water. He outsplits all followers, and builds a huge lead for David Flickinger. Second is Eau Claire when butterfly enters the water. Third place Stevens Point is fighting with Whitewater to maintain position. Whitewater moves up on Eau Claire and Stevens Point. La Crosse is the clear leader going into free. Stevens Point locks in for second at the exchange. It’ll be close. Battle for second between Whitewater, Stevens Point and Eau Claire. Eau Claire moves up on the inside. Eau Claire’s Spencer Rose first to 75, but it’s Stevens Point’s Peters that wins the touch out in 3:25.52. Eau Claire takes home third (3:25.60).
Team scores: Stevens Point (245), La Crosse (187), Eau Claire (153), Whitewater (141), Oshkosh (61) River Falls (58).