When Camdenton swim coach Paige McCane saw the next batch of freshmen swimmers hit the pool, the coach knew there was potential for something special.
Turns out her hunch was spot on as a trio of freshmen in Emily Willis, Victoria Watson and Irelyn Meckley paired up with a senior veteran in Victoria Turner to become the first ever state qualifying relay team in school history. It was the beginning of a solid union as the quartet of torpedos continually shaved off time to earn a spot as one of the top 32 Class 1 teams in Missouri.
Not bad for a program in just its second year of existence.
It was not an easy journey, but once the 200 Free Relay team realized what they could do they were determined to do everything it took and punched their ticket with a time of 1:51.26.
“It is pretty incredible. We kind of went through the season and they had little bits of progress, but they did not really understand it was within their grasp until right at the end,” McCane recalled. “It was not really until one of our last swim meets at SWMO that they swam the relay in finals and dropped three seconds. They were like, ‘Oh wait, we are in it now and can actually do it.’”
That was all it took to ignite the proverbial fire and motivate the group to work even harder than they had over the last couple of weeks. Turner vividly recalled increasing the air capacity inside her lungs.
“We do ‘No-Breathers’ at practice and I think that is really one of the best things that our coach could do for us,” the senior said of the ability to do an entire lap without breathing. “She always tells us, ‘Is that breath worth going to state?’
Albeit, it was not quite as intense as what they heard from the coach of another team.
“There was one time where a coach literally yelled, ‘You breathe, you don’t eat tonight,’ and we were like, ‘Ok, no breath, no breath,’” Turner said laughingly.
But McCane saw much more than that from this group. She saw a work ethic that was second to none she had ever witnessed.
“I’ve never seen a group of girls focus as much as I had the last two or three weeks of practice. We had a lot of really good practices where they worked really hard,” she noted.
“They act like all we did was not breathe, but we worked on other stuff too,” the coach added with a smile. “Starts, drills, techniques and a lot of speed work the last couple of weeks before we started tapering.”
And through all those laps and hours spent together in the pool, a bond was formed as the girls saw each other as more than just teammates.
“We’ve gotten so close that it is more like a family than just a relay. We’ve grown so close in just the last two weeks, let alone the entire season,” Watson said. “It is really awesome.”
Turner certainly would not trade her relay partners for anyone else.
“I look forward to going to meets with these girls and swimming in this relay just due to the fact that it is their first year so they want to achieve as much as they can,” she said. “For my last year, they want to help me and everyone else get as far as we can too. It is just a lot of fun with all these girls.”
Although they had achieved a state-qualifying time at the SWMO meet, their journey was far from complete. The group entered the meet with the 40th best time and jumped up eight spots to 32nd, but by the next morning they were on the outside looking in once again as their time dropped all the way down to 36th.
But that soon changed.
With one last chance to reach state during a meet at Monett, the Lakers just happened to be at the same meet as a Nevada team that held the final qualifying spot at the time. Nevada did not leave the meet with that qualifying time.
“It was nice to say, ‘That is the team that is 32nd, this is them. They are not just a name on paper and are actually here. We have to out-touch them and have to beat them,’” McCane recalled of telling her girls.
“Then they said, ‘Oh we will,’ and they did. We had all four girls drop time.”
The performance moved Camdenton up to 27th and now all four swimmers will get to embark on a new adventure and do something none of them have experienced before. They are glad they’ll get to do it together.
“The adrenaline when we’re racing is so much higher in a relay event than an individual event,” Watson pointed out.
McCane is glad that it turned out to be this particular group.
“For Turner, I definitely wanted her to go because it is something she has been wanting and she did not have as much time as most seniors have,” McCane said. “Usually, they have four years to get to state and she only had two, so I’m very excited for her. The freshmen get to go and see something incredible and will have that in the back of their heads going into next year.”
The group has competed in a big meet before as they took on a large field of teams during a meet in Columbia earlier this year. McCane said they were nervous at the time due to the sheer number of girls and talent and although state medals may be on the line this time, the coach is confident in her group.
“We talked a little bit about what the pool looked like, what it was going to sound and feel like and what the schedule would be like,” the coach remarked. “I also told them, ‘Hey, we are probably going to be the only team there that is not in the knee-skinned, super speedy suits.’
“And they kind of laughed because they realized in Columbia that we were literally the only team that was just wearing regular swimsuits. They are going to be a little star-struck at first, but then they’ll pul together, get in their own little world and do whatever it is they do to get their head in the game. They are going to pull through and be fine.”
Willis, for one, is ready for the challenge that lies ahead and the future as well.
“I think we are ready. We are excited and it is going to be good,” the freshman said. “I think it is cool that it is three freshmen and one senior. That means there is more to come so you can just get better and better.”
McCane is excited for what is to come as well and is looking forward to finding out who will step up and fill the role Turner leaves behind. She has no doubt that there will be plenty of motivation to do so. In the meantime, there is a state meet to prepare for and what the coach is hoping will be the first of many.
“All three of those freshmen are so ‘geeked up’ and excited about going to state. I have their parents telling me that they won’t stop talking about it,” the coach recalled with a smile.
And no matter how this relay team finishes, McCane is already content with all they have accomplished. After all, they made program history and raised the bar for future swimmers to follow.
“I’m just really proud of my girls and very excited to see where this goes and what they do at state. At this point in time, they could do anything,” she said. “They could swim exactly the same time and I’d be happy or they could drop 17 seconds and I’d be happy. It is just all up to them and I’m excited to see where the program goes in the future.”
The action gets underway with the prelims on Friday at the City of St. Peters Rec-Plex where the Lakers will look to make the finals on Saturday. Doors open at 8:30 a.m., and the competition begins at 12:30 p.m.