For two swimmers, the NCS championships provided both redemption and a return to prominence.
By CHACE BRYSON | Editor
Chelsea Chenault may swim in the Olympics some day.
It could happen just two months from now, or a little more than four years down the road. If and when it does happen, she’ll be showered with interview requests from local and national media. She will flash her pearly whites — an engaging smile that comes naturally and often. She will say nice things about her coaches from Carondelet High and her elite swim club, the Concord Terrapins. She will talk about growing up following the career of another former Carondelet and Terrapins swimmer turned Olympic gold medalist, Natalie Coughlin.
And when it comes to the question of what happened along the way to help her reach her Olympic dream, there’s a strong likelihood she’ll begin her story with her sophomore year of high school.
We, however, will start the story with her freshman year — when she was immediately anointed Carondelet’s next great swimmer after a dominant showing at the 2010 North Coast Section Swimming Championships. Chenault won four first-place medals that day, set NCS records in each of her individuals events — which included breaking a 17-year old mark in the 500-yard freestyle — and swam the anchor leg on a national-record swim by the Cougars’ 200 medley relay team.
Following a very successful summer campaign with the Terrapins, her return to the NCS swimming finals came eagerly anticipated. How many records would she set in her encore?
As it turned out she would have both of her records wiped off the board in what became a banner day for Amador Valley senior Catherine Breed.
Breed, who just completed her first year at Cal, beat Chenault to the wall by more than a half a second in the 200 freestyle relay. The day then went from bad to worse for Chenault as Breed outswam her in the 500 freestyle by three full seconds, and doing so in a time that was two seconds faster than Chenault’s record swim the year before.
“I was extremely frustrated,” Chenault said while recalling how she felt after the meet. “I let myself just kind of lose control (that season). By the time I wanted to pick it back up, it was too late and I kind of already knew what was going to happen. Watching how Catherine had been doing the whole year, I could of gone for best times and I could have really pushed myself because she was there. I was really upset that I didn’t take advantage of that opportunity.”
And if that day didn’t serve as the flashpoint, then a marginal summer season with the Terrapins completed her realization that she had to make some changes.
“Last year for Chelsea was, all in all, a little disappointing,” Terrapins coach Paul Stafford said. “But it ended up being pretty much a good thing because she really turned the corner after the summer and realized that she needed to do things a little bit differently — and she has all year long. She’s really matured a lot over the last year because of some of the experiences she went through.”
So it was no surprise to see the natural smile in full effect during the NCS Swimming Championships on May 19. Nor was it a surprise to see Chenault back to swimming at her record pace.
In her first individual race of the day, Chenault won the 200 freestyle by more than a second over Monte Vista’s Jenna Bauer. The time of 1:44.76 was just shy of Breed’s mark from the year before, but it did set a National Independent high school record (for non-public schools). That record, previously held by U.S. National Team member Kate Ziegler, had stood since 2006.
In the 500 freestyle, Chenault left no doubt that she was back.
In finishing the distance race in 4 minutes and 38.05 seconds, she topped her nearest competitor by nearly nine seconds, posted her second-best time ever in the event, and took a full three seconds off Breed’s record time of 2011.
“After last year I felt I had some unfinished business to take care of, and this year I just really wanted to follow through on that,” she said afterward.
Taking care of that business has really boiled down to one thing.
“Really prioritizing what is important to me,” Chenault said. “Last year, I was just thinking, ‘high school, high school, friends, parties, social life.’ Now it’s really, ‘I need to focus on swimming. It’s 2012. I need to make sure that when I go out, I’m not going to eat what all my friends eat. I need to eat healthy. I need to stay focused. I need to train hard.’”
That training is focused toward a specific meet — the U.S. Olympic Trials from June 25-July 2 in Omaha, Neb.
“Her training level in general has been way more consistent (this season),” Stafford said. “She’s way more fit than she was last year at this time. … I’m excited. We have 36 days left, and (the trials) is really where her focus is. I’m excited and feeling good about it.”
It’s clear that Chenault is feeling good as well.
“It’s looking a lot better than last year, so I’m excited to see what I can do.”
* * *
Jackson Miller does not have an identity crisis.
Outsiders may have considered that a year ago when the Las Lomas swimmer had a dismal showing at the 2011 NCS championships a mere five months after completing his first season as the school’s varsity football quarterback.
Miller, who like Chenault, had a strong coming out party as a freshman in 2010. He finished second in the 200 and 500 with strong swims behind senior teammate and future Cal talent, Greg Harper.
But 2011 was a different story. Granada freshman Nick Silverthorn dominated both events and Miller finished fifth in the 200 and seventh in the 500.
“My muscles were just fatigued down,” Miller said of that meet. “I did not have the meet I wanted.”
But it had nothing to do with his time on the football field.
“Football is what I love to do,” he said. “For me, football is just going out there and having a great time. I love everyone I play with, and it’s just going out there and being a teenager and playing around. Deep down though, I’m a swimmer. It’s who I am. I’m a swimmer on the football field and I’m a swimmer in the pool. I can have a great time playing football, but swimming is really what I do.”
It’s what he did on May 19 when he got his chance at redemption.
He set a torrid pace right off the block in the 200 freestyle, and he led by nearly a full body length over Silverthorn after the first 125 yards. Only that’s when Silverthorn found his fifth gear and closed the gap considerably by the time each had made their final turn.
“That’s kind of how I swim my 200,” Silverthorn said. “I think (Miller) has figured it out by now. With 75 left, I just turned it on.”
Miller had just enough to hold him off. He finished in 1:36.85, two-tenths ahead of the defending champ. The time also usurped Silverthorn’s record from the year before. Miller and Silverthorn are both qualified to compete in events at the Olympic Trials.
“He’s a great competitor,” Miller said of Silverthorn. “The guy can flat-out swim. He’s one of those guys who you always know is going to come on strong at the end. Which counteracts me because I’m the type of person who is just going to go out and try to hold on. It’s definitely fun racing him, and I’m sure I’m going to be racing him many many more times in years to come.”
Because of an unfortunate false-start qualification in the 100 freestyle during the NCS trials, the 200 turned out to be Miller’s only individual race of the day.
But that was enough. Enough to erase the bitter memories of the year before, and to prove to any doubters that he is, indeed, a swimmer.
“It just feels good to finish off the meet and have a race that I can be proud of and be happy about,” Miller said. “It was really just a relief after the past three years. The record really just kind of tops it all off. That certainly made it all worth it at the end.”
SportStars Magazine: High School Sports Articles Online SportStars is your go-to source for the very best high school sports articles in California. Player and team profiles, game coverage, health and fitness tips and the largest Camps, Clinics & Combine resource for athletes. We're the story behind the stats.