Jensen Keck stutter-stepped as she walked through the entrance into the Evanston Township High School pool on Friday morning for the state swimming meet and took a deep breath as she looked up at the small, confined arena filled with hundreds of parents.
DeKalb-Sycamore co-op coach Leah Eames tried to paint a picture of the meet for the freshman before they arrived, showing her pictures of the pool, talking her through what warm-ups would be like and trying to describe to her the madness that comes with the only state meet for swimming, which isn’t separated by classes. But stepping in and seeing the pool gave her pause.
“Which way should we go?” Eames remembers Keck saying before calmly leading her coach and her teammates, who came with to support her, into the bleachers.
That show of nerves was rare for Keck, who has swum in national competitions and dropped her time in the 100 breaststroke by three seconds to qualify for the state meet. But she was the only DeKalb-Sycamore swimmer to qualify for the meet, and no other competition she’s participated in compared to this one.
“I was happy to be there, but I was definitely extremely nervous,” Keck said. “This was so much bigger, and there were so many people and so many good girls. This was just way bigger for me.”
For most of the day, Keck was able to stay composed, but that adrenaline and those nerves carried over to the race.
She was one of the last swimmers to react off her block in the 100 breast, her lone race, and despite the fact that adrenaline may have made her swim faster, Eames thinks it may have led her to misjudge two turns, which slowed her slightly.
Keck still broke her personal best that she set at the sectional meet by .17 seconds, coming in at 2:07.64.
Because of her individual accomplishments and the the co-op’s team success throughout the season, Keck was named the Daily Chronicle Swimmer of the Year.
Yet Keck rued the two turns that weren’t perfect almost immediately after her 34th place finish.
“She knew she missed those turns and when she got out, she was upset that she could have gone faster,” Eames said. “At the same time, it’s hard to be too upset when you go as fast as you’ve ever gone.”
That small bit of disappointment, though, is part of what has Eames excited for the future.
Keck knows she could have been better, even though she was the third-fastest freshman in the race. She knows that she could have done better, even though she tapered twice, for the sectional meet and the state meet.
During the next few years, Keck knows she won’t be wide-eyed when she walks into the pool at the state final.
“I knew the competition would be hard, but the amount of people and how intense the meet was, I didn’t know,” Keck said. “I’m glad I experienced it my freshman year.”
Next year, she’ll be confident as she steps through the door and sees the swarms of people.
“Her goal was to get there so she could be perfected by her junior year and her senior year,” Eames said. “I just think it really helps this year that she has that experience under her belt. She can come in more confidently, knowing what to expect next year.”