For 29 seconds, Julian Hollingshead was the best swimmer in the pool.
In the 12-year-old's first event — the 50 freestyle — at the OSI Arena 11 and Over Long Course Championships July 28-30, held at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, his seeding to that point didn't reflect what he was capable of.
Hollingshead dropped 3.12 seconds in prelims off of his previous best, and all of a sudden had the fastest time going into the finals later that day.
"It was crazy; I knew he was going to be a lot faster, but not that fast," Madras Swim Team coach Tim Nelson said. "Then maybe you're thinking it was a one and done."
Even to the surprise of his coach, Hollingshead replicated his effort in the finals. He held a narrow, six-tenths of a second edge over the next-fastest time, yet still won the finals 2-3 feet in front of second place. His opening performance set the tone for the following two days that had yet to come.
"It was not a one and done," Nelson said. "I knew he was ready then."
Hollingshead went on to place in the top eight of all his events; in addition to his first-place finish, Hollingshead placed fifth in the 50 butterfly and 50 breaststroke, while also placing sixth and seventh, respectively, in the 100 free and 100 breaststroke.
Also representing MST at the championships, Lexi Williams, 11, already owned top-eight times in each of her four events going into championships, and still managed to improve all of her times by the end of the meet. Holding down each and every length of the freestyle swim, Williams placed fourth in the 50, fifth in the 200, seventh in the 100 and eighth in the 400.
MST now boasts two budding swimmers in Hollingshead and Williams, and although they have risen towards the top of their age groups in Oregon and beyond, their routes to this point have been vastly different.
For Williams, it all started when she attended her first MST practice three years ago.
"From the minute she had the first practice with me when she was 8 years old, she went (all out)," Nelson remembers. "We've harnessed that a little bit in practice, warmups and her technique, but she has that ability. We talk about arm speed and foot speed and shoulder drive speed, all the top swimmers have that, and she has that."
She started slow, swimming in a handful of meets her first year, but competition clearly came naturally to Williams.
"When you jump off the blocks, you want to be the first one to touch the wall," Williams said. "I enjoy pushing my body to its ultimate limit, and I think that's what helps me."
She said the moment swimming truly clicked for her happened last summer while watching the best in the world competing on TV in Rio de Janeiro.
"I think the 2016 Olympics is when I noticed, 'Wow, look at all these people. Everyone looks up to them in swimming.' I wanted to be like them," Williams said.
Specifically, Williams was drawn to then-19-year-old U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky, who captivated crowds in Rio by winning four gold and one silver medal and became the most decorated female Olympian at the 2016 games in the process.
While attending a five-day swim camp at Stanford in late June, Williams, along with her sisters, Elli and Ava, randomly bumped into Ledecky on campus, where she just completed her freshman season on the Cardinal's women's swimming team. Aside from a quick meeting with her idol, Williams gleaned a lot from the camp.
Hollingshead was also in attendance at the Stanford camp, and like Williams, returned to Madras with a look that he was ready to compete at state, Nelson said.
"Just seeing him after Stanford and seeing him at the meet, he does have that drive to say, 'I should be as good as them, and I'm going to do it,'" Nelson said.
As a multisport athlete, Hollingshead was at times unsure since he began swimming two years ago, if it was a sport he wanted to continue long term. But the last six weeks just might have tipped the scales.
Despite being ranked between ninth and 23rd for his age group across five events at state, he ascended in all of them.
He was seeded 21st in the fly, which put him in lane eight in the slowest of three heats. He went on to win the heat by five seconds, which drew some cheers from coaches in the crowd, Nelson said. Even more unlikely, is that of all events, the fly had long been the one that Hollingshead despised competing in.
"As soon as I started swimming, I hated it," Hollingshead said. "It was so tiring and I was so slow at it, I didn't want to compete at all at any meet. But when I went to state for it and I got fifth in the finals, I was actually surprised and happy about it."
His first two events qualified him to represent Team Oregon at the Western Zone Age Group Championships Aug. 9-12, in Roseville, California. Team sections competing come from all over the Western U.S. Although the official deadline to apply for the team was July 2, times from the OSI Championships allowed for late entrants. Nelson talked to the Team Oregon coach and was told that if Hollingshead qualified in two or three events, he would be considered for the team.
When the complete roster was posted online Aug. 1, Hollingshead's name was included. He'll compete in the same events he did at state, plus the 50 backstroke, and is expected to be on a few relay teams.
"I'm excited, and I know there are going to be a lot of fast swimmers," Hollingshead said.
Williams, meanwhile, broke the 28-second mark in the 50 free prelims, a long-standing goal of hers, and also dropped multiple seconds in the 100 free (2.26), 200 free (6.15) and 400 free (12.40).
In addition to their promising development in the pool, both kids are "coachable," as Nelson puts it. That means they show up for practice consistently, follow their coaches' instructions and maintain a positive attitude through practices and competitions.
"They're going to stay coachable; our job is to not create a burnout factor," Nelson said.
Nelson has at times worried that several of his swimmers are toeing that line between enjoyment and exhaustion, especially at the end of a summer season that goes from April to July. That's why Nelson has imposed a break for Williams until the first week of September when school starts, and the same for Hollingshead after he returns from California. They will then ease back into a training routine to get ready for the fall and winter season, starting in October and ending in mid-February.
Even during their hiatus, however, the sidelined swimmers are anxious to get back in the pool.
"My sisters are still swimming and when I (watch) I'm like, 'Why am I taking a break?' Williams said.
Lake Tahoe swim relays and an Oregon Masters championship
Aside from their time spent coaching swimming in Madras, Tim and Sara Nelson have stayed quite busy of late competing in the sport themselves.
Sara Nelson won an Oregon Master's championship July 29, competing in the Cascade Lakes Swim Series 1,500-meter swim. Her time of 21 minutes, 57 seconds was first in her 45-49 female age group, and fifth overall among all female competitors. It was the latest of several Masters championships that she has claimed.
Tim Nelson, meanwhile, continued an annual tradition with the same group of friends by swimming the Trans Tahoe Relay in July.
"Once you're on the team, you're on the team for life," Nelson said with a laugh.
Hundreds of swimmers flock to Lake Tahoe every summer to compete in one of the largest open water swimming championships in the world.
For the 17th year in a row, Nelson competed in the event that spans 12 miles with six swimmers alternating in 30-minute increments.
Nelson's team won their age group and finished 43rd overall with a time of 4:15:06.