COLUMBIA — When Hickman senior Liz Grant returned from the Greater Kansas City Invitational on Jan. 19, she was sure that she had qualified for the state swimming championships in the 50-yard freestyle. It was not until two days later that she found out her 26.34 time was just shy of the state qualifying time, which had been lowered from the previous season.
Now, with the end of the season staring her in the face, Grant and her fellow Columbia swimmers have one last chance to qualify for state.
“All through the season, you have next meet, next weekend to make state,” said Hickman sophomore Erin Heath, who needs to drop about a second in the 100-yard backstroketo go to state. “But now, it’s the last weekend. It’s nervous, nerve-wracking you either make it or go home.”
Swimmers from Hickman, Rock Bridge and Hannibal will swim in a non-scored meet Saturday at Hickman to try to get more swimmers qualified for the state meet. The state championships will be held the following weekend at the Rec-Plex in St. Peters.
In Missouri high school swimming, swimmers qualify for the state championships individually by surpassing event times set before the beginning of the season. Team scores are calculated based on the placement of those swimmers at the state meet.
For some of the swimmers in Columbia, being so close to the state cut is not a new experience. Hannah Strawn, a Rock Bridge sophomore, barely missed qualifying for the 100-yard backstroke and the 50-yard freestyle at last year’s last chance meet, and Heath missed the 100 backstroke cut by about .7 seconds a year ago.
“You learn a lot from missing state,” Heath said. “You start to do things differently that you regret not doing the year before.”
Multiple swimmers reported feelings of inadequacy from failed attempts to qualify earlier this season.
“The disappointment doesn’t hit you until you’re out of the water and your legs aren’t numb,” Strawn said. “It’s disappointing when you find out your best wasn’t good enough.”
“It’s a lot harder when you’re that close than when you’re further away,” Grant said. “What am I not doing right? Why can’t I just get that last bit?”
To combat the pressure of making the state cut, the team has engaged in a variety of mental training exercises, including visualization, coping and imagery. John Hamilton, coach of both Hickman and Rock Bridge, said the goal is “keeping your wits about you” at a state meet where his swimmers are “physically on about the same page as every other athlete there.”
At least a few of his swimmers are taking that message to heart.
“Coach has been telling me to be confident in myself, to believe that I can do it,” said Hickman junior Jordan Powell, who is looking to make state in the 200-yard individual medley and 500-yard freestyle. “It’s in my hands to make state and no one else’s.”
“I’ve taken a more relaxed approach, being more relaxed before I swim,” Strawn said. “Last year, I was pretty uptight. How you feel mentally will make or break you.”
But the swimmers won’t know the result of their efforts until they leave the pool Saturday.
“When you’re racing, you don’t think about the time,” Grant said. “You just go with your heart, and things turn out for the best. I’ve seen it happen before; I can do it again.”
Powell, Grant and Strawn have already had the opportunity to swim at state as members of their schools’ respective relay teams, and all four will do so this year. But for Strawn, that relay berth would provide little consolation without the chance to also swim in an individual event.
“I still get to swim on the 200-free relay, but for me, that’s not good enough,” she said. “The world doesn’t come to an end if I don’t make it, but I’ll be wondering what I could’ve done to make it. I’ll still feel like a serious swimmer if I don’t make it, but you can’t really explain state. For me, it’s a big goal, and it’s a big deal.”
So as all four look to the state meet, what Heath says is the “biggest team atmosphere” the team will experience all year, they’re ironically left to themselves to prepare for their last effort to get there.
“It’s not fun to be in this position at all,” Strawn said. “It’s like there’s a dark gray cloud overhead, but it’s another opportunity to do your best. That’s what I’m going to try to do Saturday.”