Badger’s swimming program has produced plenty of talented teams over the past few years, with conference and sectional titles lining the trophy cases in the halls of the school.
This season’s girls team put forth the best effort in nearly a decade, placing ninth overall at the state meet in Waukesha on Nov. 14. The finish matched the 2012 team’s state performance and was close to the sixth-place finishes recorded in 2009 and 2008.
A major factor in this season’s state meet success came because three of the four girls that made the trip had been there before.
Senior Lauren O’Brien and sophomores Callie Ceshker and Zoe McNeill made the trip up to Madison at the end of the 2019 season—a year when the team’s goal was to simply qualify. Once at state, the girls enjoyed the experience and finished in a tie for 31st out of 40 teams.
This season, freshman Mackenzie Thomas joined the squad, and things looked a little different on the surface with a new venue and coronavirus regulations changing the way the meet was run.
It also featured a different mental approach by the team that was no longer star-struck by the spectacle of the event.
“Last year in the warmups we were like ‘Oh my gosh, we don’t belong here, we’re scared, we aren’t these top dogs,’” O’Brien said. “Now we were like, ‘We are the top dogs, we’re going to get on the podium.’”
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Badger started the meet off strong in the fifth event of the day when Thomas and Ceshker competed in the 50-yard freestyle. The duo had been pushing each other to swim faster all year long, leap-frogging each other in meets and practice, though Thomas was able to come out on top at state with a 23.42 time to finish in third, while Ceshker also cracked the top 10 in seventh with a time of 23.75.
Both of those times broke the prior Badger High School record in the event, a 23.79 time set at the 2011 state meet by Anna Brooks, though it will be Thomas’ name in the record books for now until the pair can return to their friendly rivalry again next year.
“Callie had me for a long time. It was super fun racing with her though, it pushed the competition,” Thomas said.
Ceshker was back in the pool two events later to compete in the 100-yard freestyle, where she placed seventh again, finishing at 52.05.
The sophomore’s performance in both events marked a significant improvement from last year’s state meet, where she placed 20th in the 50-yard freestyle with a time of 24.52 and 21st in the 100-yard freestyle at 53.65.
Next up on the docket for the Badgers was their first relay of the day, the 200-yard freestyle, which saw the four girls team up for the first time of the meet. After seeing Thomas and Ceshker perform so well in their individual events, McNeill and O’Brien had a good feeling about the upcoming relay.
“Once Zoe and I saw they cut time, we were like, ‘Okay, it’s go time,’” O’Brien said.
That gut feeling was correct, as the relay team finished in second place with a time of 1:35.16, another new school record, beating the time of 1:37.24 set at the 2008 state meet by the team of Ellie Lorenzi, Lindsey Mikrut, Emily Russart and Maddie Clark.
The state runner-up finish was also the first for the program since Anna Brooks placed second in a pair of events during the 2011 meet.
Thomas rounded out the team’s individual events in the 100-yard breaststroke with a fourth-place finish at a time of 1:04.30 in the second to last event of the meet.
However, the team’s most memorable moment occurred in the final event of the meet, the 400-yard freestyle.
Just as McNeill was nearing the finish on the opening leg of the relay, O’Brien was readying herself on the starting blocks when her goggles snapped. With no time to run off to the side of the pool for replacements, Thomas and O’Brien quickly handed their own goggles to O’Brien, who put on the new pair with her new pair still flapping against the side of her head as she swam in the race.
The bit of adversity did not stop the team from swimming its best time of the season, a 3:36.02 that ranked them in ninth place.
That hectic finish notwithstanding, O’Brien could not be happier with the way her career ended and the people it ended with.
“With all of the difficulties we’ve had this year with Covid, I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better group of girls to go to state with,” O’Brien said.
For the team’s other three state meet participants, there are at least two more years to go in their high school careers. By earning a spot on the podium and a top-ten team finish, their confidence will only continue to rise when next season comes around.
“We did this much this year, we can probably do so much more next year and keep going from there,” Ceshker said.