"This was one of those days you hope to have when you get into coaching," FIU coach Randy Horner said Friday night after the third day of the Sun Belt Swimming & Diving Championships.
Horner didn't just mean the wins by Sonia Perez in the 400 IM (school and Sun Belt record), Johanna Gustafsdottir in the 100 backstroke (school record) or the 400 medley relay team (school record). Track and swim coaches dream of meets when everybody walks out feeling good after beating the clock as they never have before and you find unexpected gold.
Take freshman Jessica Chadwick, who finished fourth in the 100 breaststroke Friday night with a 1:02.84. After Chadwick was fifth in the 100 breaststroke prelims Friday morning with a 1:03.39, a time almost three seconds faster than her previous season best (that's a lot over any distance, an eternity over 100 meters), Horner decided to make her the breaststroker on the 400 medley relay Friday night. That let him move sophomore Klara Andersson, winner of the 50 freestyle on Thursday, to the freestyle leg ("She's the best freestyleer in the conference right now," Horner said). Horner already knew he'd have Gustafsdottir would handle back and Marina Ribi would take butterfly.
So FIU led off the 400 medley relay with the best 100 meter backstroker in the conference; then went to the fourth best 100 meter breastroker; the second best (by less than a blink) 100 meter fly woman; and finished with the fastest freestyle sprinter, whose advantage might be enhanced at 100 meters. Gustafsdottir gave a 71 hundreths of a second lead to Chadwick and FIU was off to a 3:40.87, smashing the school record set at last year's Sun Belt meet by 6.11 seconds.
Perez qualified for the NCAAs with her 400 IM switime of 4:10.54. She had the best prelim time by 7.5 seconds Friday morning. Friday night, the junior beat her hours-old school and Sun Belt record of 4:11.96 to win by 5.05 seconds over second place Hannah Runyon-Hass from Western Kentucky. The previous Sun Belt record of 4:12.64 was held by third-place finisher Eszter Bucz from FAU, who was up by 3.12 seconds on Arau and 2.19 on Runyon-Hass after the opening butterfly leg.
As she did in the morning, Perez was faster in the second half of both the backstroke and the freestyle legs than the first half and was only one hundredth of a second slower in the second half of the breaststroke leg. She passed Runyon-Hass on the second half of the backstroke leg, then caught Bucz in the second half of the breaststroke leg and pulled away in freestyle.
"In the 400 IM, you want negative splits, faster in the second half of each 100," Horner said. "She swam a textbook race."
FIU freshman Becky Wilde's 4:24.48 brought her home fifth and was a 13-second improvement over her best time before Friday. Sophomore Jean Madison's 4:30.75 put her 11th and freshman Sarah Smith got 14th place points for her 4:34.34.
Gustafsdottir threw it down in the prelims with a 54.74 to break her own school record, then threw a raise on that with a 53.94 in the final to win by 54 hundreths of a second. That sounds closer than it was -- Nos. 2, 3 and 4 were separated by 52 hundreths of a second. Valeriia Popova (58.31) and Chelsie Kidd (58.42) got points for FIU in 12th and 14th, respectively.
And Sabrina Beaupre won the 1-meter diving again. Her 294.60 wasn't close to her Sun Belt record 323.85 from last year, but was still 28 points better than second place. Beaupre now will have surgery on her left ankle to set herself up for a stronger senior year instead of diving in the NCAAs, as she did last year.
Grab a stopwatch and try to click off just three hundreths of a second. That's how close senior Ribi came to winning the 100 butterfly. Ribi knocked down the school record again, as she did in the prelims, but her 54.78 was three hundreths behind North Texas' Mona Groteguth. Junior Sarah D'Antoni came in seventh (56.58) for FIU.
"We thought she'd won," Horner said. "It was so close, you couldn't tell with the naked eye."
Freshman Dani Albright's 1:49.06 brought her home third in the 200 freestyle. FIU had three of the top 8 finalists in the 100 breast and wound up taking seven of the 15 scoring slots: fourth, Chadwick (1:02.84); sixth, Andersson (1:03.23); eighth, Madison (1:04.58); ninth, sophomore Dani Meara (1:04.15); 11th, senior Krissy Metka (1:06.02); 12th, junior Mary Boucher (1:06.10); and 14th, junior Melissa Moreno (1:08.90).
Despite FIU's wins, the team competition is still coming down to North Texas and Western on volume of swimmers and divers. The host school leads the Hilltoppers 600 to 586 going into Saturday with FIU in third at 489.