Then-junior Elizabeth Bittiker stands behind the block. Goggles tucked under her cap, Speedo swimsuit conforming to her body. The 200 free relay final at the 2012 state meet is about to start. She tries to block out the sounds of the crowd, focusing on her race — the third leg. She starts to enter her mental zone.
Olathe East is leading the heat by half a body length. She steps onto the block. Sophomore Madeline Peters reaches the cross on the bottom of the pool and Bittiker starts to move her arms. She throws her arms up around her head and then in front of her body as she enters the water. She starts sprinting and catching up to Olathe East. She hits the first wall and is dead even with Olathe East. Twenty-five yards left and she begins to feel the burning sensation in her lungs. She starts gaining a lead on Olathe East. She lunges for the wall and junior Tiernan Shank launches off the block. Shank holds off Olathe East and East wins the event.
Fast forward to the 2013 Sunflower League Finals. While Bittiker is swimming the 50 and 100 free along with the 200 medley relay, Peters and Shank are still swimming on the 200 free relay. But, now they are leading the relay along with freshman Sarah Allegri. The league relay went on to take second place, losing to Lawrence Free State and senior Courtney Caldwell in a fingertip finish. Although the team got second place in the relay, the entire team was able to win a ninth straight Sunflower League championship.
This year’s championship team is different than the past. Of the 26 girls who are on the varsity team, seven are seniors and seven are freshmen. This is something that has changed some of the team dynamics from the previous years.
“This year there are so many seniors and so many freshman I think we have bridged that gap between the older and the younger girls and we have really come together,“ Bittiker said.
The even ratio of seniors to freshmen is something that has changed the role of the seven returning senior lettermen. They have had to take on more of a leadership role with the large number of young swimmers.
The number of freshman varsity swimmers has moved some swimmers that made state in previous years off of the League team. For five of the 17 members of the state team, it will be their first time swimming in the state meet.
“I am swimming the 50 free, 100 free, the 200 medley relay and the 400 free relay,” Allegri said. “I’m also really nervous because the competition in my events is hard. I have been practicing hard and working on my technique, I’ve also been going to morning practices with my club swim team.”
Although this will be many swimmer’s first time at the state meet, some of the young swimmers have experience at other large meets. Freshman Bonnie Longan competed at the Junior Nationals meet in Florida with her club team this past spring. Longan swam the 50 and 100 yard backstroke in Orlando with her club team.
“Swimming at juniors helped [prepare me] a lot,” Longan said. “It got me used to the noise and pressure that will be at state.”
The seniors will be looking to build on their past state experiences to help the underclassmen through their first state meet. Swimmers have been preparing for both these new experiences and for their state meet since the beginning of the year.
“Junior year [my grade] stepped it up a lot more and tried harder,” Bittiker said. “We got more into it, and then senior year we have just really been giving it our all…just trying to be role models for the younger swimmers and just included them and made sure they felt like part of the team.”
The senior leadership is something that has helped many of the freshmen make the transition from their club or summer league team to the high school team. They have transitions from swimming a couple of times a week to practicing six times a week for two to three hours a day.
These freshmen will be looking to help the seniors win their fourth straight State Championship. They will try to help the seniors stay undefeated in their four years at East, trying to leave behind a legacy of not only winning, but also of leadership.
“I think mostly we want to leave a legacy of our attitude and our work ethic,” senior Sarah Freshnock said. “All of the seniors work extremely hard and we all have good attitudes and we all want to lead the team. That is how it has been all four years.”