IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Abby Smith did not have to look up for her time on the scoreboard in Glenbrook South’s natatorium to confirm she had accomplished something pretty special last weekend.
All the Highland Park High School junior swimmer needed to do was listen — to her teammates’ deafening post-race cheers.
“That was pretty cool, hearing them,” Smith said.
Smith — slotted in the penultimate heat of the 100-yard butterfly at the Glenbrook South Sectional on Nov. 11 — clocked a school-record and third-place 56.94 to secure the first state berth by a Giants swimmer since Becky Gutnayer (also a flyer) advanced to state in 2004.
Glenbrook North senior teammates Ellen Gilbert and Tiffany Qiao went 1-2 in the fly last weekend with respective times of 56.74 and 56.85.
Both bettered the previous pool-record time of 56.9, set by Loyola Academy graduate Maria Jardeleza in 2013.
“Swimming in that heat [fourth of five heats in the 100 fly] was perfect for Abby,” said HPHS coach AJ Block, in her eighth season with the Giants. “This is a big deal, such a big deal. Abby was fired up for today. She’s a fierce competitor, driven, a great kid who works hard and trusts her coaches.”
Block had leaked tears of joy for Smith as soon as Smith touched the final wall in the race.
But Smith would give Block and her hoarse teammates another reason to celebrate and scream a little while later. Smith took third in the 500 free (school-record 5:07.61, nearly 10 seconds faster than her seed time) to claim another state berth.
“That’s a tough double, the 100 fly and 500 free,” Block said.
Indeed. Only five heats of the 100 free separated the end of the 100 fly and the start of the 500 free.
“I’ve laughed with [Block] often this season, because I kept changing my mind about my second [individual] event practically every week,” said Smith, the daughter of Sue, a swimming official at age-group meets.
Her time (5:17) in the 500 free at a dual with Evanston this fall opened a lot of begoggled eyes. Smith owned a personal-best time of 5:18 — achieved while fully tapered — in the event last season. She wasn’t close to being rested when she climbed the block in the meet with the host Wildkits on Sept. 22.
As a fifth-grader, having tried a slew of sports, Smith had a frank talk with her mother.
“My mom said to me one day, ‘OK, time to pick a sport you really enjoy,’ ” Smith said.
Smith chose the most grueling one of the bunch and has never regretted doing so.
Smith ranks 19th among all state qualifiers in the 100 fly. Her goal since the start of the season has been to swim on Saturday (finals session) at state to vie for a top-12 medal. That’s still an attainable one, especially since she thinks her sectional swim in the 100 fly had a few blips.
“I glided near the walls,” admitted Smith, whose underwater tactics (dolphin kick and propelling off the walls, to name a couple) are her strengths in the fly. “I need to do a better job of gauging where I am before turning and finishing.”
Highland Park senior Rachel Wander finished her final sectional at the prep level with a flourish, taking third in the 100 breaststroke with a state-qualifying and personal-best 1:05.58. Her twin sister, Hannah Wander, also lowered her seed time in the event but missed qualifying for state by a little more than four-tenths of a second. Hannah earned a fifth-place medal with her time of 1:07.19.
Giants senior Aliana Velick plunged to her second straight state berth in diving, totaling 407.75 points (fourth place and good enough for at-large status) in the sectional’s morning session.
On the day after the sectional last weekend, Smith celebrated her mother’s birthday, did nearly three hours of homework and attempted to “regain my energy.”
Coach Block, meanwhile, couldn’t wait to do something she hadn’t been able to do in her previous seven years with the program — oversee a pre-state practice.
Notable: New Trier hosts the state swimming and diving meet Nov. 17-18. … HP’s 200 medley relay of junior Abby Smith and seniors Rachel Wander, Noa Cole and Ari Cole combined for a school-record 1:49.89 (seventh place) at last weekend’s sectional. HP’s Giants finished eighth (88 points) at the 13-team meet.