With just six swimmers on its national roster, Westmont Women’s Swimming finished up the NAIA National Championship as the ninth team in the nation. The Warriors scored 151 points to make the top-10 and would likely have finished as high as seventh had the flu not caused Westmont to pull out of two events.
“It is unbelievable to finish ninth with just six swimmers,” said Westmont head coach Jill Jones Lin. “It was impressive to see their grit and their determination to get on the podium and to score points.
“We go into this meet without having expectations, partially because we don’t ever see these teams and we don’t know anything about their swimmers and their depth. So, it is super fun to be surprised by what we can do.”
“It is cool to think that we can compete with some of these larger teams,” noted Rian Lewandowski. “All of our races counted. Every relay, every individual race, every top-16 finish and making it back to finals counted and went toward something.”
The final championship day started with Bridget Hoth competing in the 100 yard freestyle. Hoth posted a time of 54.75, but missed advancing to the finals.
“It was Bridget’s last individual event,” noted Jones Lin. “She had a good swim. It was solid for her.”
The only other race for the Warriors in the morning session was Ella Chaisson in the prelims of the 200 yard breaststroke. Chaisson recorded a time of 2:25.17 and finished eighth to earn a place in the evening session finals.
“Ella had nearly a perfect race in the 200 yard breaststroke,” said Jones Lin of Chaisson’s preliminary swim.
“There wasn’t a whole lot I would have said could have been better. She snuck into the ‘A’ final, which she has developed a knack for doing.”
The first event of the evening session was the 1,650 yard freestyle, which is the longest event of the meet. The biggest question going into the event was whether or not Morgan Bienias, who held the NAIA’s fastest qualifying time this year, would be sufficiently recovered from her illness to be able to compete.
“It was really crazy and unfortunate,” said Bienias of her week. “I had the flu on Wednesday, then I swam on Thursday because I felt a little better. It went downhill from there and I scratched an event on Friday. Today was the first day I felt really good. I just tried to be positive to swim the mile. I wanted to finish strong.”
“Morgan going in being ranked number one is so challenging,” explained Jones Lin. “On top of that, having the week she had is so daunting. I have never seen her so confident in what she has done and how she has prepared. She had an attitude of whatever happens, happens and she was just going to go for it.”
Bienias finished in fifth place with a time of 17:42.72 to earn All-American honors.
“She raced really hard and was just four seconds off her lifetime best time, which, in a mile, is just a couple of tenths every lap,” said Jones Lin. “It was a really great race.”
“During warm up, I didn’t feel like I had my stamina,” admitted Bienias. “I was doing pace and I got a little scared. However, I knew that there are bad days all the time at practice, so, I’ve been through it all and knew I just needed to push through it and do it.
“I added a little bit on my time, but I’m not surprised. I am actually really happy. I felt strong and I didn’t think I would.
“I am so excited to be an All-American. It means everything. Swimming with really fast competitors and getting All-American is so cool and I am really proud of myself and of our team.”
Bienias, however, was not the only Warrior to stand on the podium after the event. Olivia Garrison placed eighth in the 1,650 with a time of 17:54.50 and also received All-American honors.
“I was so proud of Olivia that she was eighth place and became an All-American. She had a really full week and it is hard to get out and swim the mile at the end of a long week like this.
“The exhaustion of the whole season really shows, but I am really proud of Olivia and Morgan.”
In the finals of the 200 yard breaststroke, Chaisson, improved her morning time by 2.22 seconds to claim sixth place in the event and garner her fifth All-American title of the championship – three in individual events and two in relays.
“Ella had a great swim this morning, but she was able to race tonight and out-touch another swimmer,” said Jones Lin.”
The final race of the championship is always the 400 yard freestyle relay
“It was always one of the most fun relays,” said Lewandowski who swam the anchor leg. “It’s one of the toughest because it is always at the end when everyone is tired. We also had to wait for a while because diving was going on. Everyone gets super excited for the 400 relay and we had a ton of energy going into it.”
“The 400 yard relay is always a tough race for us because we don’t have any true sprinters besides Bridget,” noted Jones Lin. “A lot of these teams have at least two top 100 yard freestylers, but we only had one 100 yard freestyler. The team fought really hard and it was a great way to end the event and the whole season.”
The Westmont quartet of Garrison, Hoth, Chaisson and Lewandowski finished in 11th place and set a new school record in the process, posting a time of 3:38.51.
The Warriors will be bringing back a good bit of hardware earned at this championship. All six members of the team leave Columbus as an All-American. Altogether, Westmont earned five All-American plaques in individual events and two All-American honors in relays.
In addition, the Warriors re-wrote seven school records. Their success is all the more remarkable when one realizes that half the national team (Chaisson, Garrison and Ellie Muench) was composed of freshmen.
“I love being with all the freshmen,” said Lewandowski, a junior. “Coming into this program (three years ago), there were only a few upperclassmen because it was brand new. They were great examples to me and I have tried to be that for our current freshmen. By encouraging them, they do the same for me.
“The freshmen are what is building this program and making it be this great thing. It is super inspiring to see how well they do. It is easy to encourage them. It just makes me want to do better because they are surpassing us by the second. It is encouraging to have these younger swimmers that push you.”
That spirit of unity and encouragement was on display throughout the week. Whether supporting an ill teammate, cheering from poolside or celebrating each other’s accomplishments, the Warriors displayed what can be accomplished by dedicated athletes who are as excited about each other’s successes as they are their own.
Ron Smith is the sports information director at Westmont College.