Ten years on: Central’s last girls swimming and diving championship

In 16 years of professional newspapering I’ve seen a lot of stuff. Blowouts, squeakers, 0-0 ties, four-overtime ridiculousness, 90-point bull rides – it takes all kinds to make an interesting existence in this line of work.

Few events have equaled the sheer excitement of the 2004 WHSAA State Swim and Dive Championships.

Cheyenne Central won its second straight championship by one point over host Gillette. One. Point.

To understand the ridiculousness of it all, you need a little context. Invitational swim meets score 12 places in each of 12 events. There are 837 points in nine individual events, 558 in three relays (relays count double), 1,395 points available in the entire meet. Gillette won this year’s meet with 350 points, and had more than a 100-point cushion on second-place Laramie.

For a competition with that many points at stake to come down to one point takes some doing.

So consider that Central’s 200-yard medley relay was disqualified for a false start in the first event of the finals on a Friday.

The Campbell County School District Aquatic Center pool measures 50 meters by 25 yards, and the competition pool for state hugs eight lanes at the end closest to the bleachers. So there’s a warmup pool separated from the competition pool by a movable bulkhead. Thanks to the nice meet organizers, I stood on the bulkhead, a front-row seat for the madness. And I figured the dream died with the red card in the medley relay.

The Lady Indians swam uphill all day, but their swimmers were absolutely relentless. Freshman Morgan Craver placed fourth in the 200- and 100-yard freestyles, junior Naomi Ballard was fifth in the 100 breaststroke, and senior Jay Diller took sixth in the 200 individual medley and fifth in the 100 breaststroke.

While depth is key, few championships come without winners. Senior Elizabeth Carlton won the 50 freestyle and took second in the 100, while classmate Heather Robinson was third in both those events. Junior Sarah Ruppert won the 100 butterfly and placed second in the 500 free.

The MVP for Central – and our Prep Athlete of the Week the following week – was junior Kaella Hartigan. She remains one of the most mentally tough athletes I’ve ever covered (yeah, lots of superlatives from this one, but bear with me). Slight of stature, a sweetheart of a person, highly intelligent and an insightful interview, Kaella had the bearing of a grad student walking into an exam whenever she stood behind the starting block. She always looked nervous to me, but that was just her response to the stress of competition; every athlete deals with it differently. Behind the look of concern was an unshakable focus.

At the 2004 state meet, coach Mark Miller asked a lot of Kaella. She competed in the 200 freestyle, the 100 breaststroke, and the 200 and 400 freestyle relays. She had won the 100 breaststroke two years in a row and was favored to win a third. Based on the swim meet schedule, she would swim three of the last four events – the 200 free happens early in the meet, so she had a long break between events. The 200 free relay precedes the 100 backstroke, the 100 breast and the 400 free relay to close the meet. So Kaella swam three of the last four events.

Kaella finished second in the 200 free, then Carlton won her 50 free, then we had a break for diving.

I kept my own score and with every medal Central won they got closer and closer to front-running Gillette. Naaaah, I thought, you can’t recover from losing 20-plus points on a DQ in the first event (remember, relays count double). They’ll be happy with second, I figured.

For the freestyle relays, Miller grouped Kaella, Heather, Liz and Sarah, just an awesome quartet of swimmers. Two of them went on to swim at college – Kaella down the road at University of Wyoming and Liz at Division III powerhouse Kenyon College in Ohio (the alma mater of “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoonist Bill Watterson, by the way). They won the 200 free relay before Kaella won her third straight 100 breast championship and headed back to the locker room for a brief moment before anchoring the 400 free relay.

After the 100 breast and during the B final in the 400 relay, I added my scores up, then created a hypothetical for Central winning the 400 free relay. I knew the meet was close but when I realized Central would win the meet by one point with a win in the last relay – well, I won’t repeat precisely what I thought (this is a family blog, see), but I couldn’t believe what the numbers told me.

Last week, while reporting the advance story for this year’s state meet, Mark and I chatted about the 2004 meet. He said he was in the restroom when they announced the scores headed into the 400 relay and knew instantly Central would win the meet with a win. And it wasn’t one of those deals where Gillette couldn’t finish better than a certain place. If Central wins for 32 points and Gillette gets second with 26 points, Central wins by one point.

The tone sounded to start the 400 free relay. Casper Kelly Walsh led the race after two legs – Athlete of the Meet, future Texas A&M swimmer and future Olympic trials qualifier Kirsten Heiss swam a ridiculous sub-51-second leg to lead off, and teammate (and future University of Kansas swimmer) Carrah Haley maintained a body-length and a half lead for KW with the second leg. Central and Gillette were close, but Liz leaped in for the third leg and gave Central the lead for good, and Kaella – nervous to the point of tears before the race and a pep talk from Miller – put the icing on the cake as Central won the race.

Miller got the standard coach’s bath after the trophy presentation. Gillette coach Phil Rehard struggled to find words and his athletes looked on like zombies.

Wide-eyed Liz said “We never stopped believing,” grinning Heather said “Absolutely amazing,” a dripping coach Miller said “What a group of girls,” and a red-eyed and shaking Kaella just smiled and shook her head.

Morals of the story? Never underestimate significant doses of mind and heart – and it’s never over until it’s over.

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