MIHS girls swim earns first state title in 11 years

Mercer Island senior captain Jennifer Pak heads to a second-place finish in the 100-yard freestyle preliminary event on Friday afternoon during the 3A state swimming meet. The Islanders earned their first state title since 1998. - Charles Cortes/Kent Reporter
Mercer Island senior captain Jennifer Pak heads to a second-place finish in the 100-yard freestyle preliminary event on Friday afternoon during the 3A state swimming meet. The Islanders earned their first state title since 1998.
— image credit: Charles Cortes/Kent Reporter

Four and a half points is all that separated the Mercer Island girls swim team from history. For 11 years the team has watched while others took the top trophy, celebrating poolside in Federal Way at the state championships. Finally, after a decade of grit and determination, the Mercer Island girls swim and dive team took the top place at state, beating the Juanita team by 4.5 points for the state title.

“The girls and I knew from the very first day it would take every single person, and it did,” said first-year head coach Chauntelle Johnson. “Once we were there, they were on a mission.”

Johnson, who took over the program after being an assistant to longtime head coach Jeff Lowell, said she knew once they were at the meet what it was going to take for the girls to win the title, but the night before, she was definitely nervous.

“I knew exactly where we had to be throughout the meet, but there were times going into state I was unsure,” she said. “Once we were there, I knew we were in position; we just needed to get there, but I was definitely nervous the night before.”

The win was a career highlight and will be memorialized forever on the walls of the MIHS gym, but Johnson said she still has trouble believing that it actually happened.

“It’s become one of those surreal moments, and I still kind of can’t believe it happened,” she said.

Johnson said the win was truly a team effort, requiring every point from every event possible to give the Islanders enough to take first.

“I was really wowed by Jennifer Pak, one of our captains, who really put the team on her back emotionally, as did Stephanie Hammond, one of our other senior captains,” said Johnson. The coach said she was also impressed with junior Lauren Poli’s determination at the meet. Poli battled the entire season against mono, fighting just to train enough to qualify for the state meet.

“She was a driving force, and it was great to see her overcome this,” said Johnson. “She put the team first and said, ‘My team needs me, what can I do?’”

The team had six freshmen compete at the event, a group which Johnson said — despite it being their first state meet — showed great maturity.

“The freshman class in general wowed me,” she said. “It was like they’d been there before, when they hadn’t. They were calm and confident, and it really put the team over the top.”

In the 200 medley relay, the first event of the finals, the Islanders’ quartet of Grace Wold, Lauren Poli, Madeleine Chandless and Stephanie Hammond earned the state titles with a time of 1:50.11.

Jennifer Pak started off the finals of her senior state swim meet with a third-place finish in the 200 freestyle event, finishing just behind Kel Tannhauser of Juanita and Emily Fenster of Kennedy, who took the title.

Wold took second overall in the 200 individual medley race with a time of 2:09.32, helping to push the team into first place after three events.

Poli took fifth overall in the 50 freestyle, tying with Flora Muglia, a Mercer Island resident who attends Seattle Prep, while teammate Hammond finish the event in 10th place to give another seven points to Mercer Island.

Junior Vanessa Gaffney added another five points to the Islanders’ cause with her 11th-place finish in the 1-meter diving competition.

“Vanessa’s five points really put us over the top,” said Johnson.

As a team, the Islanders fell into third place following the diving finals and the 100-yard butterfly, where Chandless finished 13th overall. Trailing Juanita by 2.5 points and Kennedy by 6.5 points, the Islanders remained in the hunt for the top spot. Pak’s second-place finish in the 100 freestyle earned the team another 17 points to push it back into the first place, along with a 10th-place finish by freshman Kira Godfred.

From then until the end of the meet, the Islanders and Rebels bounced back and forth, each desperately seeking enough points to secure the top spot.

In the 500 freestyle event, neither Vee Vee Wang nor Alyssa Hatsukami qualified for the finals, giving Juanita a helping hand as Kel Tannhauer took the state title. The Rebels repeated their state title performance, breaking the state record to nab the top spot in the 200 freestyle relay, while the Islanders’ team of Hammond, Poli, Christina Williamson and Pak took third overall.

Wold finished third in the 100 backstroke to close the point gap between Mercer Island and Juanita to just half a point, heading into the final two events of the meet.

The Islanders surged ahead in the second to last event, the 100 breaststroke, when Poli and freshman Danielle Deiparine finished third and fourth overall.

The Islanders sealed their fate in the last event of the weekend with a third-place finish in the 400-yard freestyle event. The team of Godfred, Pak, Chandless and Wold finished in 3:40.59. Despite Juanita’s first-place finish in the event, it was not enough to give the Rebels the extra points that they needed to take the title away from Mercer Island. The Islanders finished with 246.5 points, ahead of Juanita’s 242.

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