Six Warrior swimmers, along with head coach Jill Jones Lin and newly appointed assistant coach Emma Leathers, made their way across the country to represent Westmont in the NAIA National Championships. By the end of the first day, all of them had earned NAIA All-American honors.
First, Morgan Bienias, Ella Chaisson, Bailey Lemmon and Daisy Marquardt finished eighth in the 200 yard medley relay. Then Olivia Garrison, Bienias, Emma Bustamante and Marquardt did the same in the 800 yard freestyle. The top eight finishers are named All-Americans.
The NAIA changed relay qualification procedures this year that made participation in the event a bit more challenging. Last year, teams could qualify by beating relay qualification standards. This year, however, there were no qualification standards for relays. Instead, participants could only qualify for individual events. Then, each coach could put together relay teams from those who had qualified, assuming his or her school had enough qualifiers. The result was that a coach might have to include some swimmers who were not as proficient in the event.
Despite that reality, Westmont swimmer not only finished high enough to earn the All-American honors, but in the process broke the school record in both events.
“We did not know who to put on that relay,” acknowledge Westmont’s head coach Jill Jones Lin about the 200 yard individual medley. “We don’t have our typical relay swimmers to be able to pick from. So, we had to be a little more creative and think through all possible combinations. We hoped that it would be good and that Daisy could pull through. She hasn’t sprinted all season because she has focused more on the distance stroke events. It was awesome. Getting the first race out of the way is really important. We have been waiting and getting ready for the meet to start. It is finally here and this was a great way to set the tone.”
The race was particularly gratifying to Lemmon, a senior, who was unable to compete in her sophomore and junior seasons due to an injury.
“It is honestly exciting and I am proud of making it to this week, especially since it is our last year in the NAIA,” said Lemmon. “We had more people qualify this year than we thought. Being able to be an All-American alongside my teammates is an honor. I am proud of all of us for making it this far.
“The 50 yard butterfly (the third leg of the race) is my favorite relay to do. I was excited to swim with my goggles on (as compared to conference) and see how fast I could go. I think that was my fastest split for all four years.”
The Warrior quartet shaved exactly one-half second off the previous record, finishing in a time of 1:48.24.
In the 800 yard freestyle relay, the Warriors beat the previous record by more than four seconds, posting a time of 7:48.65.
”In general, they have all swam that event, but we have not focused on it in training,” noted Jones Lin. For them to come together and get a school record and get eighth place by 0.03 is pretty amazing. It was awesome for Morgan who just swam her last 200 freestyle ever. She was able to end on such a high note and was so close to her lifetime best time for her split.
“They all swam with a lot of heart. They went out really fast and held on as hard as they could in the end. It was a really good swim.”
For Bienias, a senior who participated in an off-campus program during the fall semester, the reality of getting back to the national championship site was especially challenging.
“I am really proud of myself and my team,” said Bienias. “I am really happy to be here. I wasn’t at Westmont in the fall, so it means a lot to be here now and I am super grateful.”
Asked about her fall training, Bienias replied, “I did a lot of running when I could in the mornings. I traveled a lot and wasn’t at school a whole lot. I didn’t do any weight training and maybe swam once a month. Getting back into training in January wasn’t as hard as I thought, but I definitely was not hitting my times at all. I was very out of shape and I still kind of am. But that is okay, I just tried to be positive and work hard in the weight room and in the pool.”
In regard to today’s 800 freestyle relay, the senior said, “Honestly, my body was not feeling great, but I wanted to be here with my team. We were all super positive and happy to be here. I think that is what brought the energy out of me. This was my last 200 freestyle ever and my last relay ever, so I just left it all out in the pool.”
In her freshman year, which was the first year of the program, Bienias earned All-America honorable mention recognition in the 1650 yard freestyle. Since that time, she has been honored as an All-American each year. In total, she has now collected seven All-American titles.
The other two members of the 800 yard freestyle relay team – Marqardt and Bustamante – are freshman and participating in the first national championships.
Asked if she thought she would be at nationals at the beginning of the year, Marquardt answered, “Honestly, no. I wanted to make it, but looking at the times from last year, they were all very fast and I didn’t know that I could get there.
“At our winter invitational in November, I swam the 400 IM and Coach Jill said the timing could possibly get me into nationals. At the conference meet, she was more serious about me going and that is when I qualified for nationals.”
“I didn’t even think I was going to get to come to the meet,” said Bustamante, whose times put her just outside the initial list of qualifiers. When the final fields were set, however, Bustamante had made the cut. “Just being here is exciting. Then being able to place and be an All-American is very cool.”
Asked when she found out she would be able to compete, Bustamante said, “I was in the middle of biology class and all of my teammates told me to check my text messages.”
“It has been so fun being on such a close team and working hard together,” expressed Marquardt. “It is really special. I love all of our teammates. We push each other. I don’t think I could have gotten here without any of them and their pushing me in practice and at meets. They are so encouraging. I love our teams.
“They are so encouraging to me and everyone loves each other so much,” agreed Bustamante. “The fact that we are able to come to practice every day and work so hard is because we are doing it for each other, which is so special. We do it to do our best and to push each other to do our best – in and out of the pool.”
Ron Smith is the sports information director at Westmont College.