THE FINAL RIDE
The reality of winning a state championship was even better than the dream.
The afterglow of not just taking the Metro League crown but also wresting away the Class 6A state championship tiara from Jesuit was everything the Sunset girls swimming team could hope.
First, there was the Apollos' annual end-of-year team dinner at McDonald's where Alayna Connor, Kate Westlake and the rest of the beaming Sunset squad toasted to their accomplishments while munching on well-deserved French fries, cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets. There were heartfelt speeches from Sunset's senior captains, happy tears, bear hugs and utter amazement at the blue trophy sitting on the table in front of them as the team stayed out until well past midnight.
Then there was a school-wide assembly which was well-attended by the student body in the Sunset High gymnasium. One-by-one the team was introduced at center court to a roaring applause. The rush of admiration and flood of well wishes in the wake of the long-desired state title was remarkable. Swimming was indeed at center stage in the Apollo athletic community.
What's interesting is Sunset's encore this season might just be on par with the original. On the eve of a winner-take-all Metro League showdown with Jesuit this week, the Apollos haven't lost a dual meet yet. Connor is back as the team's captain, fastest sprinter and anchor for two of Sunset's relays. Angie and Tia Lindsay, as well as Lindsay Swail, are swifter and stronger than they were a season ago. Without the burden of winning a state title, Sunset, Connor said, is swimming stress-free.
"We're excited, but I feel like the pressure is kind of off after doing it once for our program," Connor said. "It feels good when you want something, you work for it and you're able to pull it off. If we can do again, great, but if not, it's our senior year and we're still getting to do this together whether we win or lose. Everyone has a little bit more fun."
They're all uber competitive in the pool and ultra tight when it comes from having that team tie that's defined Sunset's four-year run of state and district success.
"Last year, going for that state title, we kind of crossed a new level of appreciation for each other," Connor said. "I can't really explain it. We don't do anything special or different than these other teams. It's just the group of girls we have here has a lot of potential and is really willing to get up and fight for things when it matters and that goes a long way."
There's always been a unique bond that binds the Apollos, specifically the always bubbly and energetic Connor and her fellow senior mates. It's an intangible, ingrained, natural chemistry that Connor said has "always been there" with Sunset, like when the group gets together in the summer to frequent some of the state's top swimming holes or meets at somebody's house for a pre-finals study session.
In a swimming world, where steely glares and grimy training sessions are the norms, the Apollos pride themselves on joy and fun. And if you think that Pollyanna-like way of reasoning is pie in the sky, check out Sunset's success with its team relays. A year ago, Sunset won the 200 and 400 free relays in addition to taking second in the 200 medley, all of which were instrumental in helping the Apollos put up a girls swimming state title banner. In three years, Connor has been a part of four state title relay teams, two runner-ups and a third-place finish. It should come as no surprise that winning the team events is a direct reflection of the Apollos' affinity for one another.
"When you're a happy swimmer, you're a fast swimmer," Connor said with a smile. "We're all really good friends on an everyday level. We all hang out a lot and like hanging out with each other. I think our relay records and performances really show the chemistry we have. I can't tell you how many relays we've had where people have just absolutely stepped up and out-touched opponents by tenths and hundredths (of a second)."
That's not to say Sunset hasn't weathered its share of adversity. Most of the team has suffered through the flu at least once this season, which has taken away from training. Tia Lindsay sat out Sunset's meet against Aloha with a concussion sustained in a freak practice accident last week and is questionable for the postseason. Connor said the Apollos are "always fighting something" but it seems a bit more than usual this season.
Thankfully, since the season started, Sunset's team depth has swelled.
Kiki Lindsay, the youngest of the Lindsays, has been a boon in the lineup. She's the best breaststroker on the team, someone who swims times at the senior sectional level already and swims the breaststroke leg of the medley relay for Sunset. Lily Gardner is a noted butterflier with talent and ability. Senior Cat Gillis is an import from the Apollo water polo team who Connor believes will qualify for state individually in the 50 free.
"Those water polo players always surprise you," Connor said with a smile. "We've always had people step up when things like this happen, so I'm sure we'll figure something out over the next couple of weeks."
The Sunset-Jesuit rivalry, never one that lacks juice, escalated to another level last year. Because Jesuit false started in not one, but two relay races at the district title meet, they were forced to forfeit 64 team points at both the Metro and state meet, essentially costing the Crusaders a chance to win state. Still, the Crusaders put heat on Sunset at state in a matchup that came down to the final event of the day, the 400 free, which Connor and company won. There's a healthy discord between the two teams when it comes to high school swimming that spurns speedy times and personal records. Each powerhouse wants to beat each other, plain and simple and doesn't shy away from that belief.
"We owe a lot of great relay swims to (Jesuit) being there, and that's awesome," Connor said. "Having Jesuit there only makes us better in Metro and in state. That's the great thing about competition — we make each other better."
Personally, Connor has made some big decisions when it comes swimming. In the off-season, she committed to the University of Arizona then switched club teams after the club long course season to rejoin an old coach in Lake Oswego. With the change came harder training during the season, which should taper off as Sunset turns its focus toward the postseason. Connor's been on the preface of individual state titles before both in the 50 and 100 free with a handful of second and third place finishes at the state level. She's the favorite in both events as a senior, which would not only cement an already stellar career into legendary status but keep Sunset near the top of the team standings, which the co-captain is more concentrated on.
"Hopefully the fourth time is the charm," Connor said with a smile. "I'm hoping for good stuff and I've done everything I can to make it successful, so we'll see. It's been in the back of my mind this season...but I can't ask for a better high school experience whether I get to call myself a state champion or state record holder or whatever. I think it says a lot about you as a leader and a swimmer if you're able to lead a team and your team does well. That means you've done things right. I hope I've been as good of a leader as I'm trying to be."