Tales of a Tiger Shark: With a Little Help from My Friends

The call out meeting for the 1992 Lebanon Tiger Sharks was more like a family reunion than an information session. We were all familiar and comfortable with one another. There was not a single freshman going out for the team, but there were a couple of juniors joining me from the class of ’93. Jon Beard and Aron Lamerson, both from my group of friends outside of swimming, had decided to give the Tiger Sharks a shot. Both stuck it out for the entire season, and Jon in particular became a source of support for me during my senior year when the burden of leadership weighed heavy.  Though no freshmen came out for the team, the class of 94, the sophomore class, was large enough to make up for the lack of fresh faces. The amount of new information being presented was sparse. We knew the drill: show up for practice, work hard, play hard, swim fast. Everybody was upbeat. We were joking around with one another, and with coach Lohsl. The camaraderie was evident from the very first time we got together that year. We had had a very strong showing in our big meets the previous season, and with several returning swimmers, we believed that we were destined for great things.

Winter Sports Preview

As comfortable as we were with one another, our relationship with other sports within the Lebanon community, especially basketball, can best be described as ‘complicated’. Basketball has been described as a religion in Indiana, and that doesn’t apply only to the collegiate level. Lebanon has an especially proud history of high school basketball going back at least as far as Rick Mount, former all-American at Purdue, and possibly further. As if on cue, while I was working on this post, a farmer living along a major interstate near Lebanon unveiled an enormous sign on his grain elevator proclaiming Lebanon to be the “home of Rick Mount”. My first year in Lebanon, the basketball team had an especially successful season that culminated in an appearance in the semi-state round of the statewide tournament. As a freshmen, I was able to watch students that I’d seen in the hallways of LHS beamed into our household via an Indianapolis television station. The town was nuts. The school was nuts. And this wasn’t even the state championship game we were appearing in. Basketball was ubiquitous.

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Swimming and basketball seasons coincided with one another, which meant that while we were attempting to send swimmers to state, the majority of the Lebanon and high school community was focused on basketball sectionals, regionals, semi-state and state competition. As an adult, I completely understand the lure of a spectator sport over an individual-centric competition like swimming. I’ve sat through enough day-long track meets in the blistering sun to understand that only the most dedicated fans and parents would be interested in that particular brand of torture. But as an athlete, it could be a little frustrating to be so overshadowed. We had friends on the basketball team, and we didn’t have any animosity against them, but we certainly felt like the neglected stepchild of winter sports. We were every bit as good of athletes as those who participated in more popular offerings. We certainly worked as hard. But instead of dwelling on what couldn’t be changed, we embraced the image. The very fact that our mascot was the Tiger Shark instead of the Tiger like the rest of the athletic teams gave us a sense of separation, of our own identity. We stood on our own, without the need of further support and adoration.

This self-identification was a nice motivator, but only partially true. The evidence of support was right in front of us in the form of a beautiful, new, brightly lit swimming pool equipped with state-of-the art electronic timing and underwater sound systems. The pool had spent nearly an entire year being remodeled, and 1992 would be the inaugural season for it, yet another good omen for our squad. No doubt the school supported us, and probably with the money generated by the basketball team. Also, the perception of having little community support was a bit of an exaggeration. We obviously didn’t bring in the number of fans that showed up at each home basketball game, but we did have an amazing core group of dedicated Tiger Shark devotees who showed a tremendous amount of encouragement throughout my entire four years on the team. First of all, we had a group of parents who seemed to genuinely enjoy each other’s company and followed us all over the state to watch our meets. It’s great to see the old VHS tapes from 1992 and hear how much fun they were having  while cheering us on. In particular, I remember my mom and dad, the Ulloms, the Walters, the Kecks, the Sprays, the Forresters, the Deaters, the Chambers, and Chris Clay’s mom showing up at several of those stuffy, humid meets. I’m sure there were more, but memory fades with time. As far as supportive students, we had a group of girls called the timettes who not only came to our home meets to perform backup timing duties, but also acted as our own personal marketing team! The timettes took up the cause of decorating each of the swimmers’ school lockers for every single meet during the season. I’m sure it was a thankless task, as most of us were too cool (or, thought we were) to let on that we enjoyed the attention. But, it was awesome to walk into school the day of a meet and see those good luck wishes adorning my locker. This, more than anything, kept the Tiger Sharks alive in the collective consciousness of the student body during basketball season.

Timettes 1993

Timettes 1993

 

One thing that did improve within the community as our team improved was press coverage. It probably helped that the top two swimming schools in the conference were rivals, and both schools made up a majority of the local newspaper’s readership. My freshman year, in the Lebanon yearbook, the boys and girls swim teams shared a write-up over a two-page spread. By my sophomore year, each team had earned their own specific section of the yearbook, a tribute to the amount of information needed to cover both. Likewise, the clippings from the Lebanon reporter from 1990 were mainly short column pieces with a collection of personal best times and a few race wins here and there. By 1992, those blurbs had turned into full-fledged meet recaps complete with race pictures and bold headlines. The coverage had shifted from personal bests and race winners to school records and state qualifiers. Most columns also had at least one quote from Coach Lohsl. I think the success of both Lebanon and Webo during those years, along with a basketball team that finished with a relatively average win-loss record by Lebanon standards (14-11), went a long way towards contributing to the local press breakthrough.

Chris Clay

Local press coverage increased as our team improved. Occasionally, we’d even get the top story in the sports section

Knowing that we had a good team returning, we set several lofty goals at the beginning of the season. I wanted to break 1:50 in the 200 freestyle, and to qualify for state for the first time. As a team, we wanted to win conference and sectionals. Lebanon had never won the Sagamore Conference in swimming, and if we were going to do it, we knew this was the year. With Chris Clay, Mark Ullom, JP King, Dan Walters and I providing the upper-class leadership, depth coming from the very solid sophomore class and Micah Peter back on the diving squad, we felt that we were strong in every area. Another goal we set was to beat Western Boone.

Every good story needs a villain, and in the story of the Lebanon Tiger Sharks, the villain was always the Webo Stars. To call Western Boone a crosstown rival is not completely accurate, as Webo isn’t located in a town. They’re a rural school located only about seven minutes from the outer perimeter of Lebanon. But their proximity to us, the fact that we swam against them three times per season and that they had a very strong team fueled the competitive drive. Since I’d been on the team we’d never beaten them. Not at conference, not one-on-one, and not at sectional. They had a massive (ten swimmers) and talented “class of 1993” (my class) that included a state champion diver. At Lebanon, I was the only member of the class of ’93 to swim all four years. So, knowing that I would be facing that Webo class essentially alone as a senior drove my desire to steal a win in 1992 with the help of Chris and Mark. Any win against them would have been huge, but what we really wanted to do was win Sagamore Conference, which would have accomplished two of our goals in one shot. In the history of the school, the Lebanon Tiger Sharks had never won the conference meet. To do so with this group of seniors would have been a personal highlight to my career, and a historic moment for the team. Most importantly, we really believed we could do it.

Besides having pure numbers, Webo’s stable of swimmers were all very good. In previous posts, I’ve mentioned Matt Spray, who I’d competed with in the 500 freestyle. Brian Carr was a returning state champion diver (not qualifier, champion – as in first place in the state). Brad McMahan was a record holding butterfly and Individual Medley specialist. Aaron Smith and Brian Euler pushed each other in the backstroke events. John Farmer was a big, strong butterflier and freestyler. But my personal nemesis was the only senior on the Webo squad, Toby Linton. Toby and I raced against one another for three years in various events. He beat me handily in both the 200 and 500 freestyle in 1990. Then, in 1991, I came back and beat him twice at conference before he did the same to me at sectionals. He was a good swimmer, but I felt that if I hung with him, I would have a good chance to win any race we were in together. In the past, hanging with him had proven to be the challenge.

Even though we had a lot of team and personal goals involving Western Boone, we respected them a lot. It was kind of a “soft rivalry”. We wanted to beat them, yes, but we didn’t hate them. Our teams were practically mirror images of one another, if the school district lines had been drawn a few miles differently either way, we could have been swimming on their team, or they on ours. Watching them before and during meets, they weren’t any different than us. They joked around, they practiced hard, and they wanted to win. In the off-season, Chris Clay was good friends with John Farmer. I spent one summer teaching swim lessons to little kids at the Lebanon park pool with Brad McMahan. Even my arch nemesis Toby Linton had a good sense of humor, and more often than not was spotted with a mischievous little smirk on his face.  And everybody liked the coach of the stars, the always-smiling and fitness-crazed Duane Swisher. I didn’t know Coach Swisher well, but the few times I spoke to him, he was always very free with advice. I think he just loved coaching swimming, and it didn’t matter whose team you happened to be on, he was willing to help. Shortly after retiring, in the summer of 2013, tragedy struck the Webo family when Duane Swisher was hit by a car while bicycling on a rural Indiana highway. He was pronounced dead upon arrival at a hospital in Crawfordsville. Coach Swisher was 55 years old.

chris.jpgOur team captains in 1992 were Chris Clay and JP King. Chris was a returning two-time state qualifier and commanded respect by example. By the time Chris was a senior, he was lean and muscular, with immense shoulders and an intimidating presence. JP was a good contrast to Chris, in that he was more of a vocal leader, though not so physically imposing. It was JP who had kept our Spanish pre-meet cheer alive long after the departure of coach Coudret – an homage, of sorts. I’m sure many visiting teams wondered why a white bread, corn fed swim team in the middle of small town Indiana was cheering in Spanish. JP also led pre-workout stretches most of the time, including during the difficult few weeks when we practiced before and after school. It was during one such stretching routine that we were all sleepily sitting down on the pool deck, getting ready to complete our hamstring stretches, when Matt Chambers glanced lazily over at Eric Forrester and asked innocently “Hey, did you get a new suit?” Eric looked down, and yelled “G-d dammit!” while simultaneously whipping his towel around his waist and springing up to saunter back into the locker room. When everybody realized what had happened, we couldn’t help but burst out laughing. Some were rolling around on their towels, howling. Eric, in his early morning stupor, had gotten undressed but forgotten to change into his speedo suit. Instead, he had been stretching out in a pair of bikini briefs. The nightmare had come true – Eric had gone to school in his underwear! Even though the skivvies covered up about the same area as a pair of speedos, Eric was still thoroughly embarrassed. For one morning practice, at least, we were all jolted awake by the hilarity of the situation.

Like the rest of the team, the distance squad was feeling pretty good going into 1992. We lost Jeff Udrasols from the 500 free and Steve Brooks from the 200 free, but I felt confident that I could fill in, and hopefully even upgrade, at least one of those races. The 500 freestyle squad returned both of the most recent freshman record breakers, Eric and I, and had a very solid and improving Matt Chambers at #3. I had finished 2nd in conference in the 200 free the year before, and the guy who had beat me had graduated. I had also finished 2nd in the 500, but had only lost by a fraction of a second to Matt Spray, so I felt that a first place finish in both races was well within reach.

Changing races

But things don’t always work out as planned. Early in the practice season, coach Lohsl called Eric and I into his pool office. I was only called into Lohsl’s pool office a few times in four years, and good news was not delivered in any of those cases. To his credit, coach got right to the point: “Hey guys, I wanted to let you know that Frankfort’s got a good freshman coming in to swim distance. I forgot about him before. His name is Karl Kreisher and he’s already swimming close to 5 minutes in the 500. I just wanted to let you two know because I know we had talked about winning conference in that event, but I had forgotten about this guy.” Five minutes? Five minutes? As a freshman? Eric and I just looked at each other. That was about twenty five seconds faster than either of our best times, and fifteen seconds better than the Lebanon varsity record. It was bad enough that we still had Matt Spray, Toby Linton and Jason Wells from Webo to contend with, but now Frankfort had a hotshot freshman who was going to blow us all away!  This was the final straw for me. I was already a little down on the race due to a perceived plateau. Why should I swim all those yards in practice if my times had flat-lined two years into my career? I thought about it for a few days, and eventually approached coach Lohsl to request that I switch to the 100 butterfly full-time. I’d swum it several times early in my sophomore year, and had seen some mild success. Strangely enough, Mark Ullom had decided to make a similar move to the butterfly at almost the same time that I had. Mark’s times were better than mine, but we were close enough that I felt comfortable moving into a strong 2nd position. Mark and I would take 1-2 in the butterfly several times in 1992, and it was usually a toss-up as to which of us would finish in the 1st position.

Regular Season

Our meet season started on a high note as we beat another county rival (Zionsville) and Westfield in a tri-team meet. Micah Peter broke the 13-year-old diving record.  Two of our next three opponents (Brownsburg and West Lafayette) were good teams that we hadn’t beaten since I’d been on the team. We beat them both. Then came poor Crawfordsville. Crawfordsville would eventually build a new pool and turn into a swimming powerhouse, but in 1992 they were at the bottom of the conference. In swimming, when you are confident that you’re going to outclass a team, it’s common to “swim off”, or put your top swimmers in events that they don’t usually swim. It’s kind of like pulling your 1st string team off the field after building up a good lead in football. Coach Lohsl’s lineup for the Crawfordsville meet would probably have been considered swimming “way off”. So much so, that our #1 distance swimmer (Eric Forrester) participated in diving – and took 3rd place. We obliterated the Athenians. We took first in every single event, and took first, second and third in five of them. The final score was 143-31, a solid drubbing.

Articles

 

By this point of the season, we were 6-0 and feeling very good about it. On the bus after the Crawfordsville meet, we passed by Western Boone on our way back to Lebanon. Several of the sophomores turned towards the school and let out a warrior’s battle shout as if to challenge the very foundation of the building, itself. We were the Tiger Sharks. Hear us roar.

As I think back to my Junior season, I wonder if I was seen as being cocky. If you look closely at the LHS winter preview photo, you can clearly see me slyly making a #1 sign with one of my hands. I was certainly proud to be a part of the team, and I talked about it a lot. Part of that was to combat the general apathy towards lesser sports in Lebanon. Whenever I got a chance to verbalize our accomplishments (especially to the media), I made sure to talk us up as much as possible. My friend Quinn Kelley wrote an article about me for the school paper in which he called me a “proud swimmer”. I was quoted in the yearbook as “boasting proudly” about having the best swim team Lebanon had ever seen. But another part of that image might have developed organically through my genuine desire to win. I was generally not friendly to opponents, especially right before a race. Being a generally quiet person, I never understood how swimmers could stand around and chat at the starting block, of all places. I developed a routine where I would stand directly behind the block with one leg on the step and one leg on the floor, staring intently at my lane until we were told to step up. It could have been interpreted as aloofness. I refused to waste energy by jumping around or wiggling my hands. I ensured no distractions by not joking around with opponents or teammates. I wanted to focus intensely on the upcoming task, and if I was lucky, participate in a very quiet mind game. I couldn’t think of anything scarier than having to race a guy who looked like he was ready to take on anyone in the pool, so I tried to be that opponent. After the race, however, was a different story. My junior season, I did not hesitate to leap into the air or raise a fist in triumph after a significant win. Any excess adrenaline was completely let loose for the post-race celebration. Was my demeanor in and out of the pool an indication of arrogance? I didn’t think so at the time. Regardless, it may have even been beneficial. I was still only a junior, so I could lean on the seniors to provide a sense of responsibility and team leadership. I was able to “let loose” without giving much thought to the repercussions. And since I swam the 200 freestyle (the first individual event of every swim meet), I was often able to set the tone for the rest of the meet. If I swam a great race and jumped out of the water like a banshee, it would tend to fire up the rest of the team for the following races.

Articles

After an undefeated start, we lost our first meet of the year at Lafayette Jefferson.  Then we lost again at Frankfort to move to 6-2. The Lafayette Jeff loss was expected, but the Frankfort meet was a bit of a surprise. We didn’t swim in our normal events, but were still hoping to come away with a win. Both losses served as good reminders that we still had work to do.

The Tiger Sharks would go on to defeat Avon, Broadripple, Brebeuf and South Montgomery to move to 10-2 going into our five-team Invitational meet. Unlike the year before, when we swam off in the invitational, this year we swam our strongest lineup with the intent of brushing up on our best races right before Sagamore Conference. We won the invitational easily, beating 2nd place Clinton Central 405 to 278. Chris Clay won 4 events, and so did I. At this point in the season it was apparent that we had a couple of very strong freestyle relays. We again broke the school record in the 200 (4*50), and we did it without Chris, our best sprinter. Our 400 (4*100) relay team was also winning very consistently with the lineup of Chris, Mark Ullom, Eric Forrester and myself. Normally, a school the size of Lebanon would be lucky to have one or two strong freestyle swimmers. We had at least five, and maybe six. What was even more amazing was that Western Boone, a smaller school than Lebanon, had about the same number of quality sprinters. It enhanced the rivalry since we were always finishing 1-2 at the bigger meets. The only question was who would finish first and who would be 2nd. At the Lebanon Invitational, there was no doubt as both of our relays swam to decisive victory. The team posed for a big newspaper picture with the invitational trophy. We were flying high going into conference.

Invitational

Sagamore Conference

As I’ve said in other posts, the Sagamore Conference meet was always one of special significance to us. It didn’t count as a dual-meet win, and it didn’t determine who advanced to state, but it was a huge matter of pride for us. In the history of Lebanon swimming, we’d never won conference, and with this being our last year with Chris, Mark, JP King and Dan Walters, we knew it would be now or never. This was the last shot for the seniors, and for me. With Webo returning eleven seniors, it would be mathematically impossible for us to beat them the following season, especially without Chris and Mark. This year, we were 40 point underdogs. We had to lay it all on the line if we wanted to make history.

Coach Lohsl took an unusual approach to the start of the conference meet. He brought us all into our designated locker room and had us lie down on our towels. As we closed our eyes, he took us through some visualization exercises. “Picture yourself at the starting block. The starting buzzer goes off. Now picture your race – the pace, the breathing…picture yourself finishing ahead of everyone else” I’ve been told that Coach Coudret was high on visualization, but this was the only time I remember doing it with Coach Lohsl. We usually steered clear of that kind of hoity-toity practice in favor of carefully planned workouts and old-fashioned elbow grease. But in this case, it worked. Changing up the routine was a masterful stroke. It emphasized even further the importance of this meet, and if we weren’t already jittery with energy from our carbohydrate load, visualizing ourselves winning our races pushed us over the top.

We didn’t start off so well, as our 200 Medley Relay team took 3rd. Western Boone set a new conference record while taking first. Next was the 200 Freestyle, the race I’d swum twice at conference and finished in 2nd as a sophomore. Fred Andersson, the winner from the previous season, had graduated. I had qualified for the finals with the top time, barely beating out my longtime rival Toby Linton. Karl Kreisher, the freshman phenom from Frankfort (and the reason I was no longer swimming the 500), was seeded a close 3rd. Eric was about a second behind him in 4th position. I think it’s fair to say that I had a decent amount of adrenaline flowing for this race. The last thing I wanted to do was to finish 2nd again, as I’d done the year before. The buzzer sounded, and we were off. The 200 freestyle is an interesting race. The pace is hard to get right. It’s tempting to take it out too fast, which can cause fatigue reach the 100-150 yard mark. But, it’s equally tempting to take it out too slow in attempt to save up energy for the back half of the race. This can be just as costly a mistake. In this specific race, I was behind both Karl and Toby almost as soon as we broke water from the start. Karl was in first, and I felt like maybe he was making a freshman mistake of pacing his first 100 too quickly. But Toby was a senior, and a seasoned 200 swimmer. I decided to try and stay with Toby as long as I could and perhaps out-touch him at the finish like I’d done the year before. This turned out to be a good idea, as Karl started to slow down after 100 yards. During the 3rd 50, Toby was in first, with Karl and I nearly dead even. At 150 yards, all three of us flipped at the same time. Toby took control going into the last 50, but as he approached the wall for his final flip-turn, he was starting to slow down a bit. I flipped, and came up even with him. At this point, I just poured it on all the way to the finish. Breathing off my right, I could see Toby falling further behind. Glancing off to my left, I could see Karl was also behind me, but not by much. I was still in front as the lane lines changed color to indicate the finish was near. As I hit the wall in first, I knew immediately that I had finally won an individual event at conference. I leapt into the air, propelled by the excess energy that had pushed me ahead of my closest competitors. Karl ended up finishing 2nd and Toby took 3rd, just in front of Eric. We’d finished exactly as we’d been seeded.

 

After the 200 free, the Tiger Sharks lost a little ground in the 200 Individual Medley, as Webo took the top two spots with Brad McMahan and Aaron Smith. Lebanon took 3rd and 4th with Sophomores Josh Deater and Matt Livengood, so we were keeping the scoring close. Next up was the 50 freestyle, one of our strongest events. Chris Clay and Mark Ullom were seeded 1-2, and Mike Ullom, who had started to drop time like a madman, had posted a good enough time in prelims to be seeded 3rd. Chris had set a new conference record in the prelim round, breaking his old conference record from the year before. As the finals concluded, Chris finished 1st (tying his prelim record), Mark finished 2nd, and Mike was out-touched by senior Joe Brannan from Frankfort to come in 4th. The best news, though, was that Webo finished 5th and 6th, so we gained a good number of points on them.

 

In diving, state champion Brian Carr from Webo took first as expected, but our own Micah Peter came in 2nd.

My second individual event of the day was the 100 Butterfly. I had finally beaten Mark at the Lebanon Invitational, where I had also broken a minute for only the 2nd time in my career. In prelims, I swam another personal best to earn the 2nd seed in the finals. Mark didn’t have his best swim, and finished above a minute to get seeded 5th. We were well represented, though, as senior JP King also qualified in the top 6. The pole sitter was Western Boone’s Brad McMahan, who had broken the Webo varsity 100 fly record as a sophomore and had been bettering it ever since. Brad and I were seeded less than a second apart, but his personal best time was still several seconds better than mine. Seeded 3rd was sophomore Scott Pearson from Frankfort, who also had a faster personal best time than I did. My only expectation for this race was to swim my own pace and leave it all “in the pool”. This was my first year swimming butterfly full-time, and I had only just recently started finishing under 1:00. I still didn’t see myself hanging with the likes of Brad, Scott and Brian Euler.

Even so, I stood at the block with blinding focus. When they were listing off the competitors, the announcer called my name out as Ben “the man” Griggs. I didn’t even notice. When coach told me about it later, I couldn’t believe it. “Why?” I asked him. “I don’t know, I guess he likes you!” was his best guess. Maybe the exciting finish of the 200 had caught his attention. As we hit the water for the butterfly, I was once again immediately behind. In fact, I may have even been in 4th place for most of the first half of the race, depending on Brian Euler’s position. Scott Pearson paced the field for a majority of the race. He and Brad hit the final turn at about the same time. I was still noticeably behind them both. At this point I still wasn’t thinking about winning, I was just thinking about putting everything I had into the remainder of the race. Unbelievably, I caught and passed Scott on my right. Then, I caught up to Brad on my left. We were neck and neck at the finish, but I was in a better position to take one last stroke as Brad had to glide into the finish. That was the difference in the race. I won by only 0.23 seconds and pulled in my 2nd conference win of the day. It was not only one of the most surprising wins of my career (for myself as well as for everyone watching), it was also the biggest win I would ever see in the 100 fly. I would win that race several times my senior year in dual meets, but would never be able to replicate that success on a big stage. But today, the biggest upset belonged to me. No victory leap this time, though. I was too darn tired! At some point after the butterfly, it began to occur to me that I could walk away a four-time first-team all-conference swimmer, as Lebanon was favored in both freestyle relays. I had never seen anybody do that before. Even Chris had only been able to pull off three wins the previous year!

 

The 100 freestyle seemed a forgone conclusion. Chris Clay owned this event, and was seeded nearly four seconds ahead of the next competitor. This type of advantage is unusual in the 100, especially at a conference meet. Indeed, he won with ease and only missed setting another conference record by 0.14 seconds. We were on a roll.

Next up was the only freestyle event that Lebanon didn’t win, the 500 free – my old race. I watched from the chairs as Karl Kreisher demolished the field with a 5:02. Toby came in a distant second place while the previous years’ winner Matt Spray dropped to 3rd. Eric took 5th with a time that was similar to what he’d swum the year before. As I watched the race unfold, I was certain that my move to the butterfly was a wise choice.

But I didn’t have time to dwell on it, because the next event was the 200 freestyle relay, and I was in it. We knew our relay was going to be strong. We had three of the top four conference finishers in the 50 freestyle on the team. We were continually breaking the school record, but it was difficult to gauge how we stacked up against the rest of the state, because the race was only in its 2nd year of existence. We only had a year and a half worth of history with which to compare ourselves. Being that it was a new race, the conference record was set by the winner of last year’s relay, Frankfort. We had two goals for the relay: win and break the conference record. In order to do the 2nd, we’d have to do the 1st. The swim order was Mark, Mikey, me and Chris at anchor. This was the standard order that we’d used most often. It was the safe call: Mark, the 2nd fastest would get us off to a good start, Mikey, the 3rd fastest would go next, I had the 4th fastest time, but had a knack for coming from behind, and Chris would anchor with the fastest leg. The only problem with the relay was that Mark, while a very good sprinter, had kind of a slow start off the block. His relay exchanges were much faster. So, we tinkered with the order a few times. I would lead off, or Chris might lead off and I’d anchor. Coach Lohsl was constantly trying to find the best mix. In this race, Mark got us off to a good start, and touched the wall in first. Mikey lost a little ground, but kept us the lead over Frankfort. I had a very quick exchange, and was able to hold the Hot Dogs off going into the anchor leg, which was to be swum by Chris Clay. It’s always nice when you can give the lead to the conference record holder! Chris also got a good jump as I hit the wall, and left no doubt as to our intentions for this race. Chris demolished the water en route to a first-place finish. We beat 2nd place Frankfort by over four seconds, and set the conference record by almost 3.

 

The 100 backstroke was an all-Boone County affair. The top six qualifiers were all from either Lebanon or Webo. Emerging Webo star Brian Euler took the race, but Mikey would upset Aaron Smith for 2nd place, and JP King and Matt Livengood would finish 4-5. Webo’s Seth Vaught rounded out the field in 6th. Scoring wise for this race, advantage went to Webo 37-34.

At this point we knew the meet score was tight. We started pulling for Frankfort to knock Western Boone down a few notches, since they were normally in the best position to do so. The 100 breaststoke helped us gain some ground, as Scott Pearson from Frankfort took first, and Lebanon sophomores Josh Deater and Matt Pullen took 2-3. Jason Wells from Webo was upset by both to come in 4th. That race produced a 14 point swing in our favor.

On the pool deck, we weren’t keeping track of points, but we knew the meet was close. We had performed exceedingly well, and Webo had faltered on occasion. Going into the last race of the day, the 400 freestyle relay, we were anxious to slam the door shut. We knew we’d swum the conference meet of a lifetime, but it would have felt somehow incomplete if we couldn’t bring home the blue in the last race of the day, just as we’d done the year before. Our 400 team was identical to the 200 relay, except that Eric Forrester replaced Mikey Ullom for the 4th spot. Mark once again started us off, and after 50 yards of swimming pretty much even with Webo, barely pulled ahead as he hit the wall. Eric swam 2nd, and after falling nearly a whole body length behind, was able to kick it in on the last 25 yards to finish only a fraction of a second behind first place. That put me right about at the shoulder of Webo (I think it was John Farmer) when I dove in for my exchange. That’s about where I stayed for the first ¾ of the race, but when I flipped going into the final length, we were even. I kicked into a final-length frenzy and by the time I hit the wall, Webo was at my knees. That was all the cushion Chris needed to continue to widen the lead. When Chris finished, we had taken 1st place by over three seconds, which doesn’t sound like much, but felt pretty good considering we were behind going into the 3rd leg of the race.

 

After the relay, we received our awards and went back to the chairs to gather our things up. I stacked my four first-team-all-conference plaques one on top of another, still somewhat in disbelief of the individual accomplishments I’d accumulated. But the day wasn’t yet complete. We were all hanging out on the pool deck awaiting the final score, which was taking an unusually long time to tally. As they announced the score, we realized why extra care had been taken.

“And the final score of the 1992 Sagamore Conference meet: in 6th place, Crawfordsville, with 84 points. In 5th place, South Montgomery with a score of 95 points. In 4th place, North Montgomery with 128 points. In 3rd place, Frankfort with 260 points. In 2nd place, Lebanon with 346 points, and your 1992 conference winners are Western Boone, with a score of 349 points!”

My head dropped. We’d only lost by three points. In that moment, I was crushed. The one chance that we had to finally win the Sagamore Conference, and we’d come up just short. I looked at the plaques in my hand and thought to myself “what else could I have done?” The answer, of course, was nothing. You can’t do any better than four firsts. Swimming is funny that way. Chris and I both won four events. We set a conference relay record. We all but dominated the freestyle races, and went toe-to-toe with Webo in most of the specialty strokes. We even had a 2nd team all-conference diver. But, we had four fewer swimmers than Webo and Frankfort, and that might have been the difference in the overall team scores. Finishing so close to first was nothing to be ashamed of. We were 40 point underdogs and managed to perform much better than expected. But to be so close to making history and winning conference for our seniors, my good friends, was something that took me several days to shake off. As I look back on this meet, I remember both the victories and the pain of knowing we’d missed our opportunity. But, with the distance of over 20 years, I can confidently say that the 1992 Sagamore Conference meet is my favorite swimming memory.

Conference Results

Three days after the conference meet, we had a three-way meet with Speedway and Lawrence Central. Coach gave us a little bit of a break by putting us in off-events. I didn’t compete in the 200 freestyle, the butterfly, or any of the relays, but I did win the 100 freestyle. Chris Clay swam the 200 IM and broke the school record. Our record moved to 12-2.

Just five days after conference we once again had to face off against Western Boone, this time in a dual meet at our new pool. We were back in our regular events with only a few tweaks here and there, an attempt to score points in some events that we hadn’t at conference. In the 200 freestyle, I was once again facing off against Toby Linton, with Matt Spray on the other side. They both swam great. In fact, I was all the way back at Toby’s feet for most of the race. But once again, I didn’t give up. Swimming distance for all those years had helped with my endurance and pacing, and I was able to pour it on in the last 25 and out-touch Toby for first place once again. It was better than my conference swim by about a half second. By this time, my reputation for come-from-behind victories had been solidified.

I still chuckle a little bit when thinking about my other individual race of the evening, the 100 freestyle. Since this was a big matchup in Boone County, the local paper had actually sent a photographer to the meet. This was the 4th time our team was given space for a picture in the sports section, an unheard of precedent for Lebanon. The photo that was chosen for this meet was a picture of Chris and Webo’s John Farmer diving in from the  blocks at the start of the 100 freestyle. My foot snuck into the left side of the frame. What’s funny to me about the photo is that the caption makes it sound like the showdown was between Chris and John, but what it fails to mention is that Farmer actually took 3rd in the event, because Chris and I came in 1-2. Years later, I noticed that my dad caught the photographer, Ron Dulhanty, in our home video version of the same race, kneeling off to the right at the start of the race in anticipation of the shot.

John Farmer, Chris Clay 100 Free

 

Both of Lebanon’s freestyle relays won, but Webo once again ultimately came out on top 100-86. It was our third and final loss of the regular season.

We won our next two meets (North Montgomery and Decatur Central) without much trouble. According to a newspaper article I have, I swam (and won) the 500 freestyle at Northmont, but I have no memory of it. I didn’t think I’d swum the 500 my junior year.  Our final meet of the season was at home against Danville. Danville proved to be a bit tougher, but we were able to hold them off to finish our regular season with 15 wins and only 3 losses, the best dual meet season ever recorded by a Tiger Shark team. Our final home meet of each season was senior night, when the seniors on the team are introduced to the crowd and everybody has a chance to bid them farewell. This year didn’t feel quite right, though. We were looking past sectionals in anticipation of qualifying for the state meet in several events, so senior night didn’t quite have the impact of finality that it might otherwise. Plus, these four seniors had been on the team as long as I had known, and it was kind of impossible to imagine the Tiger Sharks without them. They were some of my best friends, and I didn’t want to think of them leaving. I was actually quite young for my class (June birthday), so age-wise, I was much closer to the class of ’94 than to the seniors in the class of ’92. In fact, my brother-in-law Josh Deater and I were born only a few months apart. But for some reason, save a few exceptions like Eric and Mikey, I always felt closer to the seniors in 1992 than to any other class. Maybe it was just the amount of time we’d spent together, or being “in the trenches” with them in so many different relays throughout the years. Whatever it was, I felt more like a senior in 1992 than a junior. It was strange to think of them leaving without me, and just as strange to try to picture myself continuing on without them.

 

Sectional Meet

Even the sting of the conference loss would fade, and our focus soon turned to the IHSAA state meet, the final meet of the season. The first step towards qualifying for state was the sectional meet at Western Boone. By this time, I don’t think we held any delusions about winning the sectional meet. Webo had already beaten us twice, we were at their home pool, and they always swam well at sectionals. But we still wanted to qualify as many swimmers as we could for state, which meant winning events or turning in qualifying times. Only the top 32 swimmers in the state would qualify in any one event, so qualifying by the call-down time was always a dicey proposition. It was much better to win your event at sectionals and secure the guaranteed spot.

In 200 freestyle prelims, I had a pretty good swim and qualified in 2nd place behind – yet again – Toby Linton from Webo. Toby’s swim in the prelims was almost 3 seconds better than mine. On the other side of Toby was Karl Kreisher from Frankfort, and on my left was Matt Spray, just as he had been in our dual meet with Webo. Eric was seeded 5th at just under 2 minutes. I think it’s fair to say that I was pumped for this race. According to the seed times, I was still the underdog, but I’d beaten every one of these swimmers at least once in the 200 that year.

The buzzer sounded, and we were off. I remember thinking that the first 50 was being taken out pretty fast, but I was able to stay near the front. Then, I missed my flip turn going into the 3rd length. I didn’t get as good of a push as normal, so I tried to make up for it by picking up my pace a little. That worked out in my favor because I was able to stick much closer to Toby than I had in our dual meet contest. At no point was I further back than his shoulder. Kreisher, on the other side of Toby, was about even with me. At the last flip turn, Toby was still in front of me, but just as I’d been able to do at conference and in our dual meet, I found an extra gear for the last 25 yards that put me in front as we hit the wall. I raised my arms in triumph, not to show anybody up, but out of true jubilation. I had done it. I was going to state. I’d gone from an afterthought at Jackson Junior High to one of the best 200 swimmers in the state of Indiana, fueled by the angst of “new kid syndrome” and the desire to contribute to the team. It was truly a rare occasion. You just don’t get to experience success like that as an adult. Not in the same pure, untainted-by-the-lure-of-financial-rewards way, at least. It was an incredible pay-off to a lifetime of lake-paddling and lap-swimming, and I did not take the moment for granted.

 

I had broken 1:50 for the first time, and dropped nearly four seconds from my seed time to set a Lebanon varsity record and reach my pre-season goal with a 1:49.89. It was my first individual varsity record. Toby wouldn’t look at me. He pointed his eyes at the gutter and with a little grin, proclaimed “You son of a bitch, you’re 3-0 against me!” It was true. I’d come from behind on three separate occasions to beat him that year. He averted his eyes on the awards platform, too. As I passed Eric and Matt Spray on my way to the first place pedestal, they each gave a little congratulatory pat on my shoulder, but Toby didn’t. It must have stung. He was as senior. His time was not fast enough to make the state call-down. This was his last chance to make it to state, and he’d lost it in the final 25 yards. To this point, I’d only thought of Toby as an opponent, an obstacle to be conquered. I’d never actually considered what it would feel like to miss your chance to go to state as a senior.

In the 50 Freestyle, Chris Clay and Mark Ullom finished neck-and-neck to claim first and second, both finishing under 23 seconds mark. The win qualified Chris for the state meet. Looking back, Mark was really an excellent sprinter who was only overlooked because he happened to be on the same team as Chris. To his credit, he never lamented that fact. Instead, he reveled in the opportunity. Having two dominant sprinters in the senior class really benefited our freestyle relays.

Mark and I, who had traded butterfly positions all year long, had one last race against one another in the sectional finals heat. He was seeded 4th and I was seeded fifth, separated by 0.26 of a second. Ahead of me, besides Mark, was Brad McMahan, who I had out-touched to win conference, Scott Pearson of Frankfort, and Brian Euler, who was starting to really come on as a strong competitor. Mark and I both cut close to a second off our seed time, but it wasn’t enough to change anything, as the entire finals heat of the butterfly would finish in the exact places we were seeded. Though I had beaten my good friend many times over the last half of the season, Mark would come away with the final victory against me in the 100 fly.

Although his preliminary time put him in second place in the finals, Chris Clay turned in a great swim to hold off all competitors to win the 100 freestyle and qualify for state in his 2nd individual event. Zionsville had two seniors in the event, but Chris was not to be denied.

We had set the sectional record for the 200 Freestyle Relay in the preliminaries, so we had some high expectations to live up to. The relay was comprised of the same lineup that had set the conference record a month previous, but the order was changed up. We had a chance to send this relay to state, but since there was little margin for error it was decided that Chris, who usually anchored but also had the fastest buzzer start, would swim the first leg of the relay. Due to the reputation I’d built over a season of come-from-behind wins, coach Lohsl put me in the anchor position in case we found ourselves behind on the last leg. Mark, who had the 2nd fastest 50 time, would go third to make sure that we weren’t behind on the last leg! That left Mikey to swim in the 2nd position. The formula worked like a charm. Our sectional relay was ahead from the moment Chris hit the water and we rode it all the way to another new sectional record, a first place finish, and a state qualification. The 2nd place relay finished nearly four seconds behind us, time enough for me to point up at my teammates in celebration of sending a relay to the state finals for the first time.

 

One interesting event that Lebanon didn’t win was the 100 backstroke. It’s notable because conference champ Brian Euler from Western Boone upset a senior from Zionsville, Jerry Shrall, who had won that sectional event each of his first three years. Euler had come out of seemingly nowhere late in the season to become a major contributor for Webo. He would continue this trend into his senior season.

In diving, Brian Carr from Webo won as expected, but Micah Peter came in 2nd, and would eventually learn that his score was good enough to make the state cutoff. It was a great accomplishment for Micah, who had overcome so many communication difficulties with his coaches and teammates. He broke both of Lebanon’s diving records and represented the school at the IHSAA meet! During dual meets, many of the swimmers would disappear during diving. They’d go into the locker room or out into the hallway or up into the stands to visit with friends. I never did that. I always sat on the pool deck to watch the divers. I’m not making any judgments on others, but it just seemed like the right thing to do. But, I admit to making an exit during the bigger meets. There were so many divers that it would take a really long time to get through them all. So, I didn’t witness Micah qualifying for state, but I was happy to hear that he’d had such a great showing.

After setting a sectional record and advancing in the 200 free relay, we had to quickly put that win behind us and focus on the next freestyle relay, the 4×100. To be honest, focusing wasn’t much of a problem. As we were getting ready to head down to the blocks, Mark said “here’s our chance to put the nail in the coffin!”. Well, that analogy didn’t really make any sense, since we obviously weren’t going to win the meet, but we understood what he meant. If we were going to lose the meet, we were at least going to make a statement in the final race. That statement was that Lebanon had the best freestyle sprinters in the sectional, and this was our last chance to show everyone. Us against the world. We had the best seed time going into finals (3:26.25), but Webo was close behind us with a 3:27.93, and they had been swimming very well all day. The crowd was into it, too. Western Boone had the home fans in their corner, but we also had a large contingency. Everybody was aware that a state appearance was on the line. Everybody knew that this was the last race of the day – maybe of the season. The spectators were so loud that we couldn’t even hear our names being announced at the start of the race.

As in the 200 Freestyle Relay, Chris would start us off, Mark would swim 3rd, and I would anchor. Eric Forrester would swim leg 2, following Chris. As Chris stepped up on the block, we knelt down behind him for an absolute eternity. When the buzzer finally did sound, Chris was immediately in front of the pack. In true Chris Clay fashion, his thrashing style proceeded to open up a full body-length lead on 2nd place Webo. Eric jumped in the water, and though Webo started to close the gap, Eric kept fighting off any attempt they made to pass him. He hit the wall about a half second in front of Webo, and that was enough for Mark. Mark Ullom, one of the best sprinters in the conference, poured it on and made the rest of the field look like they were standing still. It was a great thing to watch, because I felt that if I had the lead going into leg four, we were going to win it. By the time I hit the water, I was fueled by an explosion of pure adrenaline. Even in the events I’d won at conference and earlier in sectionals, there were moments of fatigue during the race. Not so with this swim. I was coasting on top of the water. I was killing it off the wall. My kick was in full thrust and my arms could only be described as sort of a controlled flail. I was swimming against Brad McMahan, one of Webo’s best swimmers, but he had started at too much of a disadvantage. Mark had put Webo in a huge hole and I didn’t look back. When I hit the wall, I could once again hear the Lebanon crowd roaring. I thought it was because we were going to state again, but then I looked up at the clock. We had cut almost six seconds off our prelim time. Six seconds! That meant each of us had to have cut about a second and a half off of our best relay split. Not only that, but we set a new school and sectional record. The old sectional record had been held by Brownsburg, a school that wasn’t even in our sectional any more. I’m not being falsely modest when I say that a sectional record in that event was never even in our sights. The idea of dropping that much time so late in the season was unheard of. The time of 3:20.45 is a record that still stands at Lebanon High School, nearly 25 years later. Even though our 200 relay would eventually rank higher in the state, this was without a doubt the most inspired relay race I ever participated in, and also probably my favorite.

 

At the end of the day, Western Boone won the sectional meet, but we had a lot to be happy about. We set two sectional records. We were sending five swimmers and a diver to state in six different events. Coach Lohsl was voted coach of the year by his peers. We had come a very long way in three short years.

For the first time, my season continued after sectionals. The great thing about qualifying so many swimmers was that we had another week of practice together to prepare for the state meet. Normally, I wasn’t a huge fan of practice, but these workouts were not especially difficult. Mostly, we used the opportunity to stay loose and have fun together. To be honest, we weren’t sure exactly how to handle it. Minus Chris, none of us had ever qualified for state, so this was brand new territory. Coach Lohsl listed Dan and JP as alternates on our freestyle relays, so all four of our seniors had the opportunity to go down on the deck during the IHSAA meet.

Just prior to state prelims, we all had a party at my house, where some of us received our wacky state haircuts, courtesy of my mom’s electric clippers. Chris went completely shaved. I got the top cut really short, the bottom half (top of ears down) shaved, and a little patch of hair in the back in the shape of a diamond. Eric had someone who was really good with clippers shave the word “banshee” in script across the back of his head. It was pretty impressive. We did some other swimmerish things that shall not be spoken of, and also took a jaunt around the outside of my house in our speedos. The state meet was in late February, so this scantily clad jog included snow drifts!

IHSAA State Meet

The state preliminaries were upon us before we knew it. There is less than a week between sectional finals (Saturday) and the IHSAA state prelims (Friday), so there’s not much time to bask in your victory. The IUPUI Natatorium was supposed to be a “fast” pool. It was engineered in a way that excess wake drained off into the gutters better than most pools. Lane lines were doubled-up to decrease waves between lanes. Since the diving well was a completely separate pool, the swimming pool was uniform depth the whole way. It did feel fast during warm-ups, but it was tough to tell whether that was the pool or our haircuts, shave-down and friction-reducing oil. The touch-pads were extremely sensitive and didn’t have any give to them. Many of the touch-pads in those days still had a mechanical element to them and required a pretty decent mash to register, but not these. When you hit the wall at The Natatorium, you really felt like you were hitting a wall! Several Olympic trials had occurred in this building. It was a surreal experience, practicing in such a world-class facility. It was a huge contrast to the 1960’s era Lebanon pool we’d competed in during my freshman year.

Some schools, like Carmel, had qualified nearly everyone on the team, and were already looking past prelims to the finals heats the next day, and perhaps even to set some state records. We had a slightly different mindset – for us, this was the goal. Qualifying for state was the end game, and it was difficult to change that idea. Even with my school record time, I was seeded 27th in the 200 freestyle. It would have taken a miraculous time drop to qualify for the top 16. Our two relays were in a much better position. The 400 Freestyle relay was seeded 14th, and the 200 Freestyle relay was ranked all the way up at the 5th position in the state. But with four guys each swimming only 50 yards and relay exchanges in-between, anything could happen in that race. Throw in the fact that most of the top schools wouldn’t even “shave and taper” until the state meet, and it was tough to predict what kind of times those swim factories would turn in.

Even so, I had a different feeling when standing on the deck as a participant. The year before, when I’d accompanied Chris to the meet as an “assistant”, I was merely a spectator. This year, I had earned my way onto that deck. We all had. We belonged there. Little Lebanon, the Tiger minnows who had huddled in a corner two years ago hoping not to be noticed by the likes of Carmel and North Central, had developed into some of the best swimmers in the entire state.

I was the first of our team to compete at state, in the 200 freestyle prelims. My last name appeared on the huge scoreboard on one end of the pool. The thing about swimming in a so-called fast pool is that all of your competition is also swimming in that same fast pool. At the start of the 200, I remember seeing the other swimmers jet out in front of me and thinking “they’re taking it out too fast”. But they weren’t. These were the best 32 swimmers in the state, and they didn’t run out of steam. There would be no come-from-behind victory for me that day. I didn’t swim my best time, but it was less than a second off my school record, so it wasn’t terrible. I beat two kids in my heat and one in the fast heat to place 29th overall. I was only a little disappointed that I didn’t improve my ranking, but it felt like a good, fast swim, so I couldn’t complain too much. With the benefit of hindsight, and 25 years of looking at the VHS tape, I wonder what would have happened if I would have taken the race out faster and relied on my endurance to carry me through the 2nd half of the race. But, that wasn’t the way I was used to swimming, so the result may not have been any better.

 

Chris Clay had a similar type of swim in the 50 freestyle. He swam a 22.58, which was good for 27th. It wasn’t his best time, either, but it was very close to his sectional time. The 100 Freestyle was a bit more of a disappointment for Chris. After being seeded 5th overall with his sectional time, Chris swam over a second slower in his preliminary heat and dropped to 22nd. We were all hoping he’d qualify in the top 16, but his preliminary time eliminated this possibility.

I know Chris was disappointed in his 100, but he spun it as a good thing. “Now I can concentrate on the relays” was his rationale. We were all excited for the relays. Looking at our seeds, we were in a tremendous position to qualify to swim in the top 16. The top 16 teams would swim in the finals heats the following day. Making the top 16 in the state was not on any of our goal sheets that we crafted at the beginning of the season! Even more exciting, we were able to experience a state event as a team. For Lebanon, a school that seldom was able to piece together enough sprinters to qualify a relay for state, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The time came for our 200 Freestyle Relay to swim at the IHSAA meet. The pool deck behind the blocks was crowded. Other relay teams from previous heats, as well as officials and backup timers all clogged up the walkway. We made our way to lane 5 and waited our turn. I was set to anchor the relay again, just as I had done at sectionals. The big scoreboard showed “Lebanon” and they announced all of our names over the PA system in order that we would be swimming. Finally, it was time for the start. Chris stepped up, and when the buzzer sounded he took off in predictable amazing Chris Clay fashion. Next was Mike, then Mark, then me. It was over so fast! We swam the best time we would ever swim, and broke the Lebanon school record for the last time. Our time of 1:29.89 is one of only two records from that era that still stands. It’s so strange to think that as many times as we broke that record in the first two years of the relay’s existence, that it hasn’t been broken again in nearly 25 years. Even with the personal best time, we dropped from 5th seed to 13th. But that was still good enough to qualify for the finals heat on Saturday!

 

Our last race of the day was the 400 Freestyle Relay. Chris was leading off, then Eric, Mark and then me. We felt pretty good about our chances to qualify for the finals after having success in the first relay. We were in the third heat swimming against some very fast schools. The whole heat got off to a rocky start, as the starter had everybody stand up after taking their mark. They usually do that when someone doesn’t come down with the rest of the swimmers on “take your mark”. Standing back up after taking your mark always threw your rhythm off a little bit. It made you extra cautious when trying to anticipate the buzzer. When they finally did start the race, Chris had a great split. Coming into the wall, he was in third, fighting for 2nd out of eight. Even with the fast swim, or perhaps because of it, Eric’s anticipation of the exchange was off. Being the only relay member who hadn’t already swum in an event that evening, his adrenaline must have been running thick, because as he stretched out over the water for his leg of the race, his feet left the block a split second before Chris hit the wall. Eric had false-started on the biggest stage possible, resulting in a disqualification of the relay. I don’t remember if we realized he’d false started at the time. If we did, it didn’t show. We swam as if it was the last time we would swim together. In fact, it was. As the relay went on, we continued to fall behind other teams, most of whom were seeded to finish in front of us. When it came time for my anchor leg, I fell slightly behind the team in the lane next to us (Elkhart Central) in the first fifty yards, and then came back to out-touch them at the very end of the race by 4/100ths of a second. One last comeback for the year.

The VHS tape is heartbreaking to watch. After I exit the pool, the official gathers us all together to tell us that we’d been eliminated from contention as my dad narrates “We’ve been DQ’d. We’ve lost it.” Worse still is watching Eric break away from the rest of the team towards the bleachers as Chris, Mark and I head to the cooldown pool. With the benefit of 20+ years of life experience, I now recognize this was the time that we should have rallied around Eric in support, but perhaps we felt like he just needed to be alone for a bit.

 

The best part about being on a relay is knowing that you’ve contributed to the success of the team. The worst part is when you feel that you’ve let that same team down. I can say unequivocally (and I’m pretty sure that I can speak for Chris and Mark) that none of us harbored ill feelings towards Eric. We knew that any one of us could have left the block early, or flinched before the buzzer. It’s such a high-pressure situation; more so than any test we’d ever taken in school, or any other race we’d ever swum. Plus, relay exchanges are just plain tricky. Leave too soon, and it’s a false start. Leave too late, and you’re costing your team valuable seconds. Add to all of this that it was Eric’s first race of the day, and that he was the youngest member of the relay team, and the false start actually seems rather justified. I know he felt terrible about the way his season ended, but he was our fourth man, and we wouldn’t even have been at state without him. We won as a team, lost as a team, and got disqualified as a team. Our final time was just a bit slower than sectionals, 3:21.17. That time would not have qualified us to swim in the finals heats on Saturday, but would have ranked us #20 in the state. I still consider that relay a top 20 team, regardless of how the final race ended.

The pool began to clear out rather quickly after that heat. Four of us had qualified to return for the 200 Free Relay finals the very next day. Even though Lebanon is fairly close to Indianapolis, we decided to stay in a hotel as a team in order to get as much rest as possible and (I’m assuming) so coach could eliminate the possibility of someone oversleeping or otherwise missing the finals on Saturday. For the most part, we were a pretty responsible group, but we were still teenage boys, which sometimes nullifies any bit of intelligence or responsibility we’d managed to hold onto during those years. I seem to remember one away meet where Lohsl talked our bus driver into stopping by Chris’ house on the way to the meet because he’d somehow fallen asleep and missed our departure time. Imagine waking up to a big yellow bus parked in front of your house! But there would be no such oversight tomorrow. Tomorrow was it. No matter what happened, it would be the last Tiger Shark race of the 1992 season.

The hotel room was an experience in and of itself. One room: four teenage guys still coming down from the adrenaline high of the day’s events. Coach Lohsl was very patient with our banter, but it probably helped that he wasn’t too far removed from such antics. I remember there were some disagreements about sleeping arrangements. There was speculation that Chris’ bald head might accidentally rub against someone in the dead of night, so nobody wanted to bed down with him. Mikey, being the youngest, eventually lost the vote and got paired up with Chris. He chose to sleep on the floor instead.

We arrived for warm-ups at the natatorium the next day. The smell of wintergreen was already in the air. Watching the state meet from the pool deck was quite a treat. If I’d felt that I’d earned a place down there during prelims, that feeling was even more justified as we took our place among the top 16 teams in the state. During the 200 freestyle (my main race), I muscled my way between a group of rowdy Carmel swimmers to watch the finals from the edge of the pool. One of them looked over at me as if to say “who the heck are you?”, but I just ignored him while gazing out over the water. They may have been fast, but they were also scrawny next to my broad frame.

Our relay was in the consolation heat – the 2nd group of eight, ranked 13th of 16. The first alternate team, ranked 4 slots behind us, was North Central, the team that we had so feared while wallowing in their sectional just two years ago. At this point, I’ve already described so many relays over the course of the post that it’s pretty tough to differentiate one from another. In nearly all ways, this specific swim was unremarkable. We swam decent times, we hit our exchanges, and we missed our best time from the day before by a little over a second. We finished the season at #14, our best state ranking of any race during my time at Lebanon. The one thing that made this race different was that it was my last swim with Chris and Mark, and the last race of their careers. The gravity of that situation didn’t hit me until much later. I would never again swim with two of my best friends. What a great way to spend our last race together, though – at the state finals, far exceeding any of our pre-season goals. We had done it. Despite not winning the conference or sectional meets, we had emerged from the middle of a corn field and put points on the board for Lebanon at the state championship.

Awards and Moving On

In the early spring, Lebanon always holds a winter sports awards program. All of the accomplishments of the winter sports athletes are recognized. But the best part of that program was when the individual sports teams broke out into smaller rooms and held their own specific awards presentations. It allowed us to get the entire team back together one last time before going our separate ways. This was the time when coach Lohsl would announce lettermen, talk about power points rankings, recognize individual records and accomplishments, and hand out peer-voted awards like most valuable swimmer. We had quite a list of accomplishments to run through this season: five all-conference swimmers, numerous varsity records, two conference records, two sectional records, and six state qualifiers in six different events.  Chris Clay was awarded most valuable, and I received the mental attitude award. Of all of the accolades I collected that season, this award was perhaps the most humbling because it was voted on by my teammates. I considered it a higher honor than the most valuable award, because I appreciated mental toughness and competitiveness. I received a trophy and also had my name engraved on a plaque (alongside previous winners like Jeff Udrasols) that stayed in the school’s trophy display case. I was the first non-senior to win this particular award. I know this because the school plaque had an inscription that said “Senior Mental Attitude Award Winner” that had to be changed to accommodate my junior status. I wonder if that plaque has survived the various remodels of Lebanon High School and is still on display somewhere, or if it’s been buried in storage?

After the awards, the 1992 Tiger Sharks, the best swim team Lebanon had ever seen, disbanded. If this were a Hollywood production, now would be a perfect time to end the film. The three acts of naive freshman, transitional sophomore and triumphant junior years comprise a nifty little three-act play with all loose strings neatly tied up after the climax of the final state-placing relay. It’s a tale complete with drama, rivalries, heartbreak and triumph. But this isn’t a Hollywood film. It’s a true story, and in real life we don’t usually have the opportunity to tie up all of our loose ends. As Chris, Mark, Dan and JP moved onward and upward to begin the next stage of their lives, I would stay behind and try to lead a somewhat young and depleted team to a successful 1993 campaign against a familiar and formidable foe.

200 Free IHSAA

Me before the IHSAA 200 freestyle state prelims at IUPUI

From the 1992 season (click for gallery):



This blog post contains real names of people who were a part of my swimming story, some of whom are probably reading this post. I tried to think of a way to tell my story without using names, but found it impossible. The people are just too important to the story. It is not my intention to misrepresent anybody, but if you were there, and you disagree with my depiction of events or characterizations, I apologize. I blame it on the distortion that occurs to certain memories seen from a singular point of view over 20 years ago. 

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4 thoughts on “Tales of a Tiger Shark: With a Little Help from My Friends

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