Camdenton's Meckley and Willis grateful for the experience as they prep for final state meet
It seems the time has flown by- in and out of the pool- for Camdenton seniors Irelyn Meckley and Emily Willis.
It was just four years ago when the duo reached the Class 1 state meet as freshmen teammates in the 200 freestyle relay with 2018 graduates Victoria Turner and Victoria Watson and made history as the program’s first state qualifiers after its inception in 2016. The team finished 30th that year and it was the only event the program competed in, but those two young freshmen made a habit of going back to state each season and through their consistency, became the first swimmers in program history to become 4-time state qualifiers after reaching the final meet once again this season.
“It is an incredible honor to be able to say that Irelyn and I have gone to state all four years. Each year we have gotten stronger and faster,” Willis said. “I hope Irelyn and I have left behind legacies along with inspiration to future Laker swimmers and I’m very excited for the future of the Camdenton swim program and hope the program continues to succeed.”
Well, for a fairly young program, the two seniors have put together quite a track record and some benchmarks for some future swimmers to follow with times that have consistently been among the top 32 in the state- the normal requirement to qualify for the final meet of the year.
As sophomores, the duo were part of three state-qualifying relay teams and only one of those teams finished behind their original seeding. The 200 medley relay team also featuring 2019 graduate Anna Leezer and 2020 graduate Kiah Seymour finished 20th, the 200 freestyle team that also consisted of Seymour and 2019 graduate Sasha Prather finished 25th and those two former Lakers teamed up with Willis and Meckley to capture 31st in the 400 freestyle relay. Willis also became the first Laker to compete in an individual event and finished 21st in the 100 backstroke and 26th in the 50 freestyle, improving upon her own seedings.
The pair came back as juniors to swim in two relay events and Willis also competed in two individual events once again and made some more history as she became the first Laker in the program to reach the finals of an event by making the top 16. Willis, originally seeded 17th in the 100 butterfly, finished 16th and she also finished 27th overall in the 100 backstroke. Meanwhile, Willis and Meckley were part of another 200 medley team with Seymour and fellow senior Amanda Ferguson and the quartet finished 26th. Junior Abigail McGuire joined in with Seymour and the senior duo for the 200 free and they captured 28th.
Now, as seniors, Willis and Meckley will represent Camdenton in three different events and between them, they will have represented the Lakers at state in 13 races overall over the past four years.
“There is absolutely no doubt that Irelyn and Emily stepped into their positions as leaders of the team and became the tip of the spear which defines our program,” said Camdenton coach Stacey Meckley who is also Irelyn’s mother. “As natural leaders who are also incredibly kind and humble, they have consistently demonstrated a dedicated work ethic, a sincere passion for the sport and a tremendous amount of heart.”
Under normal circumstances, there would be even more races for them to dive in the pool for. Unfortunately, a worldwide pandemic made its presence known shortly after their junior seasons and the sport did not escape the challenges that come with COVID-19. Instead of a top 32 time in any given event being the cut for state, the Missouri State High School Activities Association limited qualifying times to the top 24 spots. However, the two seniors found a way.
“Realizing this additional challenge as an opportunity, both girls readjusted their mindset, narrowed their focus and consistently attacked their races throughout the season,” the coach remarked. “Witnessing this type of determination, coupled with a genuine desire to support and encourage their teammates, will undoubtedly drive our program toward even greater levels of accomplishment in the future.”
In the face of this new challenge, Meckley set two new program records at the end of the regular season in the 50 and 100 freestyle events. She missed out on state in the 100 freestyle with a school record of 57.83 seconds, but she made the cut in the 50 freestyle with a time of 25.86 seconds that was good for 22nd in the state.
“At the start of the season, we were not sure our season would continue with the restrictions across the nation and increase in coronavirus cases. The uncertainty really put it into perspective and it was difficult to fathom that there was a chance that swim could be over at any minute- after one race- after all we had worked for,” the senior said. “This uncertainty is ultimately what motivated me to swim every meet, every race and every practice like it could be my last. I did not want my career as a Lady Laker to end knowing I had not given it 100 percent of my effort.”
That motivation drove her to continue improving times and gave her a sense of never being satisfied as she not only competed against other swimmers, but herself. She knew it would also require some work outside the season.
“I think dedication outside of required practice time and the regular season are very important to improving technique, strength and mindset. This is key to achieving the goals you set for yourself each season,” Meckley noted.
Willis became a 3-time state qualifier in the 100 backstroke this season and her time of 1:04.88 has her seeded 23rd for the final meet. She also became a 2-time qualifier in the 100 butterfly and recently set a new program record in the event at 1:03.76, which is also good for a 23rd place seeding.
Also noting how tough this year has been with the challenges of a pandemic, the senior is grateful for every opportunity she gets and she said the key for her has been about the mentality in her strive to improve.
“Every time I step on the block I know how I’m going to swim because I can feel it inside me. My favorite thing to do is visualize my races,” she said. “I think about every single second of my race and exactly what I need to do to get where I need to be. Day in and day out, I would say it took strength, determination and hope to get back to state.”
The seniors would have also been part of another 200 medley and 200 freestyle relay team at state that both finished 30th this season and just missed out on one of the top 24 spots. They may not get to team up in a relay this year, but they certainly continue to be teammates.
“They never cut corners during workouts and practice like they want to perform in their races. It is always a pleasure to watch them work out together because they value and encourage one another while working as teammates to push one another forward,” Coach Meckley said. “Their love for competition is evident and they genuinely appreciate one another.”
It all comes down to one final meet which will take place on Saturday at the St. Peters Rec-Plex near St. Louis. The Class 1 meet is slated to get underway at 9:30 a.m.
As if a pandemic has not provided enough challenges this season, the unusual winter weather that has recently come through the Lake area has added another obstacle with Meckley and Willis being unable to practice at the Westlake Aquatic Center in Laurie this week. So, the two have engaged in stretching, cardio workouts and yoga sessions specifically designed for swimmers along with visualization exercises and Meckley said both have remained positive, only wishing more of their teammates could join them.
“I want Irelyn and Emily to appreciate the opportunity, focus on the positives, believe in themselves, know they are strong and prepared and most of all, enjoy every moment,” the coach said of the preparation for state. “Their legacy to their team is to swim every race like it’s the last one and once they have done that on Saturday, I want them to experience the satisfaction that comes from a job well done.”
However it plays out, Willis said she is glad that state gets to be the conclusion of her Laker career and that it has been a fun journey overall.
“Being part of this program was extraordinary. I hope our community comes to realize the incredible things each swimmer in our program has done,” the senior said. “I’m thankful for the many memories I have made these past four years and it has been real and fun.”
Her teammate echoed a similar sentiment and noted how much fun it has been to be a trailblazer for a program that is in just its fifth year of existence and her wishes for it to grow. Meckley said her memories with the swim team are among the best of her time in high school and while individual accolades or achievements are nice, it is the relationships that matter the most.
“I am thankful for the thoughtful and empowering encouragement from my coach and family and the constant support from my fellow Lady Lakers,” the senior stated. “I consider the bonds I have made with my fellow swimmers one of my greatest accomplishments and I am so proud of the accomplishments of every member of our team and for the contributions each of them have made to creating an environment that strives for improvement, strengthens friendships and rises and falls together.”
As the leader of the program, the coach is also looking forward to its growth and said it takes the leadership of upperclassmen, courage of younger swimmers and support from the community. One chapter is coming to an end for this senior duo and the rest of the seniors, but the coach said a foundation has been set.
“Emily and Irelyn have consistently demonstrated and inspired a deeper level of commitment, dedication and personal responsibility that will move our program forward. As true examples of what is possible, their leadership qualities have already inspired our younger swimmers to push themselves beyond their expectations, support one another, appreciate every opportunity and put their whole hearts in everything they do,” she said. “These are excellent principles upon which to base a program and our senior class has certainly provided us with a lasting legacy. They have charged us with a mission to see even the greatest challenges in life as opportunities in disguise.”
Michael Losch is the Sports Editor at the Lake Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-346-2132