Daily Egyptian

SIU women’s swim and dive win MVC title

Sophomore Mikaela Montgomery participates in the 400-Medley relay Feb. 18 during the Missouri Valley Conference Swimming and Diving Championship at Edward J. Shea Natatorium. SIU finished in fourth place in the event. (DailyEgyptian.com file photo)

Sophomore Mikaela Montgomery participates in the 400-Medley relay Feb. 18 during the Missouri Valley Conference Swimming and Diving Championship at Edward J. Shea Natatorium. SIU finished in fourth place in the event. (DailyEgyptian.com file photo)

By Evan Jones, @EvanJones_DE

SIU women’s swimming and diving team won its first Missouri Valley Conference team title since 2007. 

The four-day meet came down to .65 of a second in the final event of the weekend, which led to half a point separating the Salukis and Missouri State Bears at 799.5 and 799 respectively.

MORE: Check out the best photos from SIU’s swimming and diving conference championship

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Northern Iowa placed third with 627 points, Illinois State followed with 454.5. University of Arkansas at Little Rock placed fifth with 305 points and Evansville rounded out the field with 263 points. 

“I don’t know how close you can get to a heart attack until you have one, but I was there,” coach Rick Walker said after winning. “There’s just so many years we haven’t been able to get it. We found a way to win it.”

Missouri State, which has won the last eight consecutive MVC titles, led SIU by 1.5 points going into the 400-yard freestyle relay, the final event of the weekend. In order to pass the Bears, the Salukis needed to finish ahead of them in the race. 

SIU’s 400-yard freestyle relay team consisted of sophomores Kelsie Walker, McKenna Avery, Bryn Handley, and freshman Oliwia Okaj. 

Okaj was the first in the pool for the Salukis, and led the Missouri State team from the start. SIU led after the second and third legs swam by Avery and Walker, but a 49.53 second 100-yard swim by Northern Iowa’s sophomore Molly Lembezeder secured the slim victory for the Panthers, giving Handley and the Salukis a second place finish and the team title.

The difference between first place and third place was .79 of a second. 

“I’m so surprised, it was unreal,” Okaj said. “I can’t imagine feeling any better.”

Okaj joined the SIU team in late January and said she didn’t see herself swimming with a meet on the line.

The SIU team shaved more than three seconds off its preliminary time in the final race of the weekend. Its final time was 3:23.7, which would have been a pool record. UNI’s time of 3:23.56 is now the pool record.

Before the 3-meter dive, the second to last event, SIU trailed Missouri State by 31.5 points. Walker said he knew the team needed both Saluki divers, senior Sherry Zhang and Rachel Williams to finish No. 1 and No. 2 to relieve some of the pressure on the 400-yard freestyle relay team.

On her third dive, Zhang received an incomplete dive after painfully slamming flat into the water. She responded and completed her final four dives, and finished with a score of 359.7. Zhang won MVC Diver of the Year and first place in both the 1-meter dive and 3-meter dive.

“Sherry failed a dive, ‘Oh my God.’ But she is the kind of good to get right back up,” Walker said. “Rachel did such an outstanding job. What it takes to get your head back in it, but it had to go just how it happened.”

Williams edged out Evansville sophomore Courtney Coverdale by 18.25 points to claim the No. 2 spot behind her teammate.

Earlier in the day, junior Sarah James set a new pool and school record of 1:59.67 on her way to the 200-yard backstroke title. With it, she picked up 20 points for her team.

The Salukis won six events during the weekend. 

Walker celebrated by jumping off the platform into the pool fully clothed.

“I said ‘You can throw me in or I’ll jump off the platform,'” he said. “There wasn’t even a second thought, they wanted me up there.”

The men’s swimming and diving team compete in the Mid-American Conference Championship March 2 in Ypsilanti, Mich. 

Evan Jones can be reached at [email protected] or at (618)536-3304

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