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By BOB YORK
This time, the Big Blue got to swim for something bigger than its four straight New England Championships … something bolder than the eight regional titles it has accumulated over the past decade. This time, it got to swim for something more prestigious than its four consecutive undefeated seasons … something nobler than finishing first over 44 opposing teams at the Eastern Championships. This time, the Big Blue got to swim for the Red, White and Blue.
Due to its distinguished resume, the Amateur Athletic Union selected Phillips Academy at Andover to represent the United States at the International School Sport Federation’s (ISF) World Schools Swimming Championships in Rio de Janeiro in May. The six Andover swimmers who competed in what marked the USA’s debut in these festivities were Sam Donchi (2020), Lance Freiman (2019), Marcus Lee (2021), Arnold Su (2020), Riku Tanaka (2020) and Jack Warden (2019), and they didn’t disappoint. The Blue Crew finished fourth among the 18 School Teams, just two points shy of a podium finish. Turkey finished atop the leader board, while Taiwan was second and the Czech Republic was third.
In total, 16 American high school age swimmers were invited to take part in the competition, which featured participants from 18 countries. In addition to Andover, which was the only U.S. contestant categorized as a school team entry, three other NEPSAC swimmers competed – Marcus Hodgson (2020) and Alex Hazlett (2022) of Brunswick School and Cristin Earley (2021) of Hopkins School – in a select-teams bracket.
“Having the opportunity to participate in this tournament was a tremendous opportunity for everyone … swimmers as well as coaches,” said Andover swim coach David Fox of this aquatic showcase that has been convening every other year for more than three decades – but until now, never included a U.S. entry. “The experience and exposure we received from competing on the world stage was truly unbelievable.”
“It was much like the Olympics, in fact the competition took place in the same pool that hosted the diving and water polo events during the 2016 Summer Olympics,” added Fox. “They had opening ceremonies, in which all the competitors marched into the arena, and closing ceremonies as well. Plus, all the kids were given swim caps with the American flag on them and believe me, competing while wearing those really meant a lot to the kids.”
Andover made its selection as the USA’s lone “school team” a no-brainer for the AAU officials, with an 8-0 regular-season showing, preceded by a fourth consecutive NEPSAC Championship, and the 2019 Eastern Swimming and Diving Championship.
The way the Big Blue has gone about its winning ways has been impressive, too. This season it broke 74 National, Eastern, New England, school, pool, and meet records and surpassed the standard times of qualifying for All-American status no less than 42 times during the season and postseason. One of those marks included the 200 Medley Relay, in which Warden, Freiman, Su and Neil Simpson all earned All-American status by collaborating to win in a time of 1:29.42. That is the seventh fastest time ever recorded in that event in high school swimming history and was the fastest time recorded this year.
Hodgson, who has already earned seven All-American nominations in just two years at Brunswick, proved to be the first American to ever climb the medals podium at these Championships when he collected a Bronze Medal for a third-place finish in the 50-meter Butterfly in a time of 25.41.
The Bruin standout proved to be the most productive of the USA swimmers as well, as he returned to the podium twice more during the festivities to come away with three Bronze Medals. Hazlett, meanwhile, joined Hodgson on the podium for the third-place finishes the Select Team posted in the 400 Freestyle Relay (3:39.48) and 400 Medley Relay (4:00.62). Overall, both Brunswick swimmers piled up a half-dozen top-10 finishes during the two-day event.
“It was awesome,” said Hodgson of the swimming summit. ”I’ve got to admit, though, I was a little nervous about how things would go down there during my flight. I feel fortunate though, the 50-meter Butterfly was my first event and earning a medal really helped calm things down for me. After that, I knew I belonged.”
In addition to his trifecta of Bronze finishes, Hodgson also placed fourth in the 100 Butterfly (56.79), fifth in the 50 Freestyle (24.11) and sixth in the 200 Individual Medley (2:13.23). Hazlett, who has earned All-American status on his resume as well, was fourth in the 100 Backstroke (59.77) and the 50 Backstroke (27.71) and eighth in the 100 Breaststroke (1:11.10) and the 50 Freestyle (24.71).
“Going in, I really didn’t know what to expect. We made up the first contingent of U.S. swimmers to ever compete in this World Championship so there was nothing to compare ourselves with … guess you could say we were the test dummies,” quipped Hazlett. ”
“Overall, considering the level of competition, I feel we did pretty well for ourselves,” added Hazlett of a US contingent that headed home with nearly 30 top-10 finishes in the record book. “It’s an experience I’ll never forget … standing up there on the podium receiving my medal along with fellow competitors from Brazil and China was an awesome experience.”
“It was a great way to break the ice,” quipped Brunswick coach Aaron Montgomery of Hodgson’s victory. “It proved we belonged there … that we could compete at the same level as everyone else,” added the Bruins’ mentor, whose team had stepped up all season long. The Boys of Brunswick chalked up an 8-0 regular-season showing, before turning it up a notch for the postseason. Once there, they posted a fourth-place finish out of a 30-team field at the Easterns, captured their second straight Fairchester Athletic Association crown, then finished second behind Andover at the New England Championships.
As for Andover, Warden was the pace setter for the 12 top-10 finishes its swimmers registered during the tourney. His third-place finish in the 50 Backstroke (27.12) represented the Big Blue’s lone trek to the podium where he picked up a Bronze Medal.
Elsewhere in individual competition, Freiman concluded the showcase with four top-10 showings with a fourth-place finish in the 50 Butterfly (25.19), sixth in the 100 Butterfly (56.53), seventh in the 50 Freestyle (24.30) and tenth in the 100 Freestyle (53.31).
“After having watched the Olympics so many times on TV, this all seemed so surreal,” said Freiman. “To experience a similar situation and compete for my country was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I never dreamed I’d ever be a part of … it was awesome.”
“It was a very competitive meet and I’m happy with my performance … I think we all were,” added Freiman, who, as well as his five of his teammates, has logged numerous All-American nominations while swimming for the Big Blue. “I feel so fortunate to have had an opportunity to participate in it.”
Donchi, meanwhile, recorded three clockings to put him in the top 10, finishing fifth in the 200 Freestyle (1:56.26), seventh in the 100 Backstroke (1:00.47) and tenth in the 100 Butterfly (57.71). Su posted a pair of ninth-place finishes, one in the 100 Breaststroke (1:07.30) and the other in the 100 Freestyle (53.29).
In the relay competition, the Big Blue finished fourth in the 6X50 Freestyle, as all six Andover swimmers took part and finished in a time of 2:26. In the 4X50 Medley Relay, Warden, Donchi, Freiman and Su were clocked in 1:48.97 to finish seventh.
The only girl to represent the NEPSAC congregation was Cristin Earley, a sophomore at Hopkins School, “and she represented her school, her league and most of all, her country, very well,” said Chuck Elrick, the Hilltoppers coach. “The entire Hopkins community is very proud of her.
“This was a tremendous experience for everyone who was fortunate enough to take part in this tournament,” added Elrick. “It’s the first time the United States has ever competed in this global meet and to be a part of it was well worth the wait. Now, I just hope we can continue to be a part of it.”
Earley, who like her NEPSAC counterparts has earned All-American status, certainly did herself proud during the competition, as she headed home with a half-dozen top-10 performances. She grabbed a sixth-place finish in the 100 Backstroke with a time of 1:08.88, an eighth spot in the 200 Individual Medley in 2:30.23 and ninth-place showings in the 50 Freestyle and the 100 Butterfly in respective times of 28.68 and 1:07.74. She also took part in a pair of Select Team relay races: the 4X100 Freestyle and the 4X100 Medley, and finished fifth in both with times of 4:10.65 and 4:39.40 respectively.
“Having an opportunity to compete in this tournament really boosted my confidence,” said Earley. “I really didn’t know what to expect going in except that the level of competition would be high. Now, though, I can look back and can say that I feel pretty good about the way I competed.”
In addition to the U.S. contingent, this tournament also attracted high school age swimmers from Belgium, Brazil, Chile, China, Chinese Taipei, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Luxembourg, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and United Arab Emirates.
Photo Credits: David U. Fox and Robert Hazlett
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