Making a statement: girls swimming brings home MSHSAA title


Thomas Jamieson-Lucy

Preparing to race: Sophomore Kortney Betz waits on the blocks before her only individual race, the 50 freestyle. Photo by Shawn Crouch.

Over a year ago the high school swimming program was almost cut from Columbia Public Schools’ budget because of low participation. Eleven girls made up the roster. Only one qualified for state.

But Saturday night when the Bruins arrived at the Courtwarming dance after the state meet, the chant of “state champs” from the crowd greeted them. Earlier that day, the girls’ team had pulled off the first state swimming title in school history.

“They fought for this and they deserve every bit of it,” head coach Karen Steger said, “no matter what anyone says about us.”

The journey to a state championship was not one without ups and downs, though, which began with the programs near elimination and the retirement of longtime coach John Hamilton. In response to these events, participation in the girls’ swim program soared this year with a roster of 22.

Sophomore Kortney Betz, the only state qualifier from last season, said the turnaround added even more meaning to the team’s state championship.

“From going to almost getting cut to totally winning state is just a really big accomplishment,” Betz said. “I’m just happy for me and my whole team.”

However, a state championship did not happen because of a larger roster. Size alone could not solve all the team’s problems. Steger said it wasn’t cohesive early in the season, visible in the first dual meet where the Bruins lost to Glendale 92-88.

“The Springfield dual did not go well,” Steger said. “I don’t think the team seemed like they were there for each other. They were put in a new situation because they’ve never really swam in a dual meet before, and I think it just threw everyone off.”

It wasn’t until the final week in January at the Springfield Invitational that the Bruins truly became one. RBHS won the meet only three and a half points ahead of Glendale, which gave it momentum heading into the end of the season.

“The second time we went to Springfield at the end of January and it was a whole different story,” Steger said. “We pulled out a win, more people cheered for each other; we were more [like a team]. It wasn’t as individual. They finally saw that if they wanted to place high at state, they needed to come together. I think that was a turning point in our season.”

A few weeks before the team went to state, things were beginning to click, and at the state meet it all came together. A testament to the team atmosphere at the state meet came in Betz’s events. At the state meet most swimmers race two individual events and two relays. Betz swam in three relays and only one individual event. She said this was because she believed it would be better for the team.

“I love relays. I love whenever it’s for the team. There’s less pressure on yourself, but you get more pumped up for the relays,” Betz said. Steger “made the decision, but I totally agree with it.”

In the individual events the top finisher was sophomore Chelsea Tatlow, who claimed victory in the 100 backstroke. The only other race RBHS won was the final event of the day, the 400 freestyle relay. The girls showed their willingness to put team first in this event. Sophomore Madeline Simon didn’t even know she would be swimming their relay until a few minutes before the event started.

“I just really wanted to do well for our team because she put me on it right before we were about to swim,” Simon said. “I wanted to prove that I could be on it.”

Simon not only demonstrated she deserved a spot on the relay, she helped the relay team win the race as the whole team cheered them on. Although RBHS would win the meet whether or not they won the relay, Steger said winning the relay was a great finish to the meet.

“The whole team was standing behind [the assistant coaches] and I,” Steger said. “They knocked Parkway Central out of the way to stand on the bleachers. They were jumping up and down, screaming at the top of their lungs knowing that even if we didn’t win that relay, we were still going to win a state title, and then winning that relay was amazing.”

As the swimmers celebrate their championship season, they already have thoughts of defending their title in 2013. Steger said she believes the success the Bruins had this year will boost participation in the program, which will make it stronger.

“We only lose two seniors that were state qualifiers,” Steger said. “It looks like we will be vying for defending our title next year.”
By Thomas Jamieson-Lucy