Daily Egyptian

Wet Dawgs set records, but title hopes fall short

By Matt Wells, @Mattwells_DE

SIU women’s swimming and diving had its best finish in conference since 2008 after competing Wednesday through Saturday. 

The Salukis won six events in the four-day Missouri Valley Conference swimming and diving championships at Dr. Edward J. Shea Natatorium to finish second. Missouri State won its eighth straight MVC title.

Wednesday, the Dawgs won the 800-yard freestyle relay with a time of 7:18.77, two seconds faster than Missouri State’s best relay team. 

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Behind freshman Kelsie Walker, sophomore Lauren Stockton, junior Helena Amorim and freshman Bryn Handley, the Salukis set the pool, school and conference record. Walker individually broke the pool, school and conference record with her leg of the race. 

“You wrap [the first day] up with an 800-yard freestyle relay with six records broken,” coach Rick Walker said. “That’s huge.”

SIU trailed only Missouri State after Wednesday.

Junior diver Kaixuan “Sherry” Zhang won eight straight MVC Diver of the Week awards before the meet. She won the one-meter dive final Thursday with a score of 379.35, which broke the all-time MVC Championship record.

Senior Esther “Ting Ting” Chen finished second in the one-meter dive with a score of 362.35.

“[The divers] performed so very well tonight and from the first day,” diving coach Joy Zhao said. “I’m very proud of them and we work hard. Our dream came true.”

Zhao said Zhang has a beautiful take-off, form and entrance with no splash.

Chen said diving is all mental. Her trick at practice is to think like she is in competition and while at the competition she thinks of it as practice. This way she stays more relaxed at the meets.

Walker finished second behind MSU junior Dora Kiss in the 500-yard freestyle race. Kiss set the pool and conference record with a time of 4:44.41. Walker finished at 4:46.07, which was her fastest of the season. Her teammates, Handley and Amorim, finished third and fourth respectively.

Friday, sophomore Sarah James won the 100-yard backstroke with a time of 55.33, which was a half-second faster than Missouri State senior Megan Holthoff.

“[James] came out off that wall and it was like somebody shot her out of a cannon,” coach Walker said. “She owned it from that point on.”

With only one day left in the MVC Championship, SIU was still in second place, behind Missouri State.

Walker said he was impressed with where the team was in the standings because of the situation.

“We’re young, but we’re good young,” coach Walker said.

Kelsie Walker won the 1650-yard freestyle with a time of 16:33.88 and was followed by Handley and Amorim, who finished second and third respectively.

James finished second in the 200-yard backstroke with a time of 2:01.10 behind Missouri State freshman Sydney Zupan.

Later, Zhang won the three-meter dive with a score of 449.10, which broke her previous MVC, school and pool record.

Chen finished third with a score of 380.55.

Zhao said Zhang has everything down perfectly.

“The divers were phenomenal, unbelievable,” coach Walker said. “[One-meter and three-meter dives] are events that not too many years ago, we would’ve begged, borrowed and stole any point coming out of there.”

The final race of the MVC Championship was the 400-yard freestyle relay. SIU beat the University of Evansville by 0.14 seconds.

Coach Walker said it was remarkable that two of the three freshmen who took part in the final race, Walker and Handley, swam in the 1,650-yard freestyle earlier.

“We performed like a very mature team, but in reality, age-wise, they still have some maturity to go through and that just excites the heck out of me,” he said.

After the meet, Zhao was presented with her second consecutive MVC Diving Coach of the Year award. Zhang also earned her second consecutive MVC Diver of the Year award. 

Illinois State swimming coach Steve Paska, who coached for 30 years, announced his retirement directly after the meet. 

The men’s swimming and diving team competes in the Mid-American Conference championship March 4 through 7 at the Spire Institute Natatorium in Geneva, Ohio.

Matt Wells can be reached at [email protected] or at 536-3311 ext. 269.

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