The last week of the 2016-2017 swim season could potentially go down as one of the greatest comeback stories in Memorial athletics history. As Sectional results rolled in, the Team found themselves staring at a team 5th seed, and a seemingly insurmountable 120 point deficit to top seed and #1 ranked Waukesha South/Catholic Memorial. The defending champions now played the role of the underdog, with only 13 individual swims and dives and 3 relays to try and cover the deficit. To the rest of the state, it seemed like their final preseason prediction was about to come true: the Team was finished atop Wisconsin. Undeterred, for one last week they laid out their goals in front of them and began their preparations; putting every last ounce of extra energy into the proverbial box, only to be opened on Saturday at 3 pm Central. It was possible, Coach Paul Eckerle told the Team, that despite what the psych sheet said, it was possible for them to finish out their season on top, to clear any remaining doubts the state of Wisconsin had up to this point. State Runners Up was within reach.
On the last day, the Team gathered for a brief warm-up in the Memorial pool. A quick clean-up shave-down, and off to captain David Chen’s house for brunch and a place to prepare for the afternoon.
Finally, they arrived. Quietly, confidently, to the roar of the Natatorium and the Green and White faithful. With “Defend the Dynasty” their rallying cry, they took one last quick swim, and the race was on.
What followed were potentially the most exciting three hours in the history of James Madison Memorial swimming.
It started with an 8th place finish by junior diver Sam Smith. Although he was the only diver on the Team, he nonetheless demonstrated his irreplaceability, highlighted by top finishes throughout the season and capitalized by his State performance. The Team then placed 3rd in the Medley relay, beating out higher seeds Waukesha, Hudson, and Middleton to move up; already they were gaining ground. In the 200 free, freshman Will Wowk and senior Drake Horton took control of the second heat, with Drake dominating his way to a second place finish by two one-hundredths. Following that, David Chen, seeded to score no points in the 200 individual medley, took the top spot after both the first and second heats to move up to a ninth place finish, adding yet more points to the Team’s ballooning total. In the last bit of excitement before the break, junior Roark Lundal roared back from a last place seed to also take ninth overall in the 50 freestyle. At the break, the Team, projected to be in fifth place and score no points after the 200 freestyle, was on top. The rest of the state was in shock, but the best was yet to come.
The fifteen minute break did not slow the Team’s momentum in any way, as they came out even hotter than before the intermission. Roark followed up his dynamic 50 free performance to take eighth place in the 100 fly, and in the highlight of the meet, junior Alex Wowk took the 100 butterfly title. In team-record breaking fashion, Alex out-touched heavy favorite and West rival Lain Weaver in 49 and a half seconds as the seventh seed in Lane 1, a thorough demonstration of the Team’s otherworldly performance in the meet. Drake nearly followed up Alex’s victory with a victory of his own from Lane 1, barely getting out-touched by Wauwatosa’s Danny Larson in the 100 freestyle. Nonetheless it was clear: the Team was here to fight to the end.
Waukesha finally gained the lead after a dominant 500 freestyle performance, aided by two podium finishes. However yet again, the Team moved up in points thanks to sophomore Josh Barth and Will Wowk’s strong performances (that will only get even better in the years to come). From the second heat, the Team took 5th place in the 200 freestyle relay, moving up another four spots to claim a podium spot. In the 100 backstroke, David won the first heat to move into scoring position again, finishing 10th while Alex Wowk followed up his 100 butterfly victory with a 3rd place podium finish and best time. In the last individual event of the day sophomore Cole Bell, in his only State swim, dropped yet another second in the 100 breaststroke to move into scoring position, adding once again to the Team’s expanding total. The Team finished off their State meet with a 5th place 400 freestyle finish held afloat by junior Keisuke Hirota, who played an extremely critical role in all three podium-finishing relays after illness derailed his individual Sectional swims. However Hirota, like the rest of the Team, did not let anything stand in their way at State. Nor for the season. With the touch of the last swimmer in the last heat of the last event, it was over: Waukesha South/Catholic Memorial were State Champions, but the Team had achieved its goal of bringing home yet another State trophy as Runners Up: its unprecedented 17th in a row. Overall, the Team added 71.5 points to their seeded 144.5 to finish with 216 points to Waukesha’s 246. By some miracle, or maybe through sheer will, and perhaps as a testament to their toughness, the Team scored 150% of their projected total: a storybook ending to a season filled with storybook highlights.
When looking back with what we’ve accomplished as the Team, I am also reminded of what we lost this year…our 19 straight conference titles, 20 some straight sectional titles, and 6 straight state titles, gone. But streaks aren’t meant to last forever. What my teammates and I have accomplished as participants of those streaks outweighs anything that caused us to lose them. The end of one era marks the beginning of another, and those numbers set the standard of greatness for the rest of the state, and especially us, to achieve and surpass. I have the utmost confidence that next year’s team possesses the tools and depth to spark a new era, begin new streaks, and to push this program to even greater heights than ever imaginable.
Look at what we did with 13 swims and dives, minus 14 seniors.
– David Chen