Eli McLennan in the 100 backstroke
Senior Eli McLennan knows he’s not going to be able to beat his PRs from last season. He just hopes to have an impact on younger teammates to help set them up for future success. (Photo by Logan Hannigan-Downs/Philomath News)

For the typical high school swimmer, trying to peak five weeks into this short season seems like an impossible task. Nearly all of those in the pool have not been able to match their personal records from the 2020 season, which wrapped up in its entirety before the pandemic started shutting down athletics.

“I knew it was going to be hard so I spent the entire offseason lifting really hard and putting on as much muscle as I could because I knew I wasn’t going to have my cardio,” senior Eli McLennan said this week while preparing for Friday afternoon’s district meet at Sweet Home. “My only real hope was just pure strength.”

McLennan, a fourth-year swimmer in the PHS program, continued to focus on the 100-yard backstroke in this final season. At last year’s state meet, McLennan swam a 1:02.13 and placed ninth. But he hasn’t been able to get close to his PR during this shortened season.

“It’s been tough … I was swimming a 1:04 and now it’s a 1:06, so it’s fallen off a little bit,” he said. “Hopefully it’ll be a better time for districts.”

The district meet for the boys is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. Friday. It will be live-streamed by the host school on this YouTube channel. The girls will compete on Saturday, also at Sweet Home, beginning at 1 p.m.

Carrson Hirte (Photo by Logan Hannigan-Downs/Philomath News)

McLennan will swim the 50 freestyle for his second individual event and will also compete on the 200 medley and 200 freestyle relays. In the past, McLennan might’ve gone with the 200 individual medley for his second event but this year, he’s going to have fun with the sprint.

“It’s a lot of fun, I like it,” he said. “It’s super-high intensity, it’s a good race.”

Does strategy come into play in such a short race?

“It really depends on who you are and your body type,” McLennan said. “My coach tells me to get angry and throw hands at the water. I just swim and hope for the best.”

Sophomore Carrson Hirte is a regular at the sprints and in the 50 free, he can take you through the steps that he takes for a top performance — pushing off the block effectively and underwater kicking to “popping up and swim your arms like crazy” while incorporating a fast flip-turn.

“I don’t have to think while I’m doing it,” Hirte said when asked why he enjoys the sprints. “I’m not that great at pacing myself so I can’t do long-distance stuff as well, but I can just go all out and do my absolute best in those.”

Hirte said his times are close to about what he was swimming last year in the 50 and 100 free.

“I’m hoping I’m a little faster,” he said following Wednesday evening’s one-hour workout. “It’s going pretty good considering we don’t have enough time for practice.”

Kellen Houchin (Photo by Logan Hannigan-Downs/Philomath News)

Philomath’s 200-yard medley relay expects to be competing for a spot at state with McLennan, Hirte, Kellen Houchin and Caleb Matthews. They enter the district meet with a PR that comes in under 2 minutes. The 200 freestyle relay with Hirte, Houchin, McLennan and Matthews could be competitive as well.

Beyond McLennan and Hirte in the individual events, Philomath’s Houchin, Caleb Matthews and Micah Matthews should be in the running for state as well. The winners in each event out of each district will automatically qualify for state and then the remaining available spots up to 12 will be filled out based on times.

First-year coach Daniel Mikula has called this short season a “no asterisk” year. In other words, no one team has an advantage over the other with the same restrictions applying to all.

“I think their spirits are in the right place and and they believe in themselves as they should,” he said. “We have some strong simmers and I remind them, everybody’s in the same boat, nobody’s having the normal season.”

As for times, the short season has forced swimmers to adjust their mindset.

“They don’t have the luxury of the time we’ve had in past years, so the question is always not ‘can I do what I used to do,’ it’s ‘can you do what you want to do.’ We’re able to step back and reset our goals a little bit — not making them easier, but making them attainable; make them something they can race for,” Mikula said.

The 4A-only state meet is scheduled to be a one-day event with boys and girls combined on June 26 at Cottage Grove High School.

With the out-of-the-ordinary factors involved with this year’s swim season, McLennan said his idea of success will not revolve around his events.

“I love my events and I love swimming them, but they’re just not going to be where I wanted them to be or where they could’ve been if I had a full season,” McLennan said. “Success for me this season is going to mean making sure my team next year is set up for success.”

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