Pictured: Ava Johnson, Freestyle (upper left corner); Libby Moses, Butterfly (upper right corner); Leah Chelgren, Backstroke (bottom left corner); Mac Payne, Breaststroke (bottom right corner)

OTTUMWA, IA – A peek at the clock gave senior swimmer Libby Moses an inkling that something special had just occurred, and that feeling was confirmed by seeing their parents’ reaction in the stands. 1:53.66. 

“I had a general idea of what the record was,” Moses said. “And when I saw the 1:53, I was like, ‘Guys, I think we just broke a record!’” 

In less than two-minutes, a 32-year school record had been shattered by the Ottumwa girls’ swimming 200-Yard Medley Relay team, and in the biggest moment of the season: at the State Qualifying meet in Ankeny. The previous mark of 1:54.31 had been set in 1989. 

The quartet of Moses, senior Leah Chelgren, junior Mac Payne, and sophomore Ava Johnson, are quick to point out, however, that that one-minute, 53 seconds, and 66-hundredths of a second, was up to 12 years in the making. Chelgren, Moses, and Payne have been swimming together over the past decade, including the last three in the scarlet red OHS swim caps. Johnson is the newcomer to the group, having spent the last four years in the pool with her teammates, and the newbie brought home the record in the final stretch. 

“I had no idea at the time what was going on,” Johnson recalls. “I was trying to catch my breath, and then they all came down in my face and said we got the record.” 

Johnson swims the final leg of the Medley Relay with the Freestyle stroke. Chelgren set the pace to start in the Backstroke, followed by Payne in the Breaststroke, and Moses in the third leg with the Butterfly. The record-setting swim came in their first race of the day, which proved to be filled with other near record-breaking finishes and additional State Qualifying performances.

Following their Medley Relay, the same group posted a 1:43.26 in the 200-Yard Freestyle Relay which proved to be 19th-fastest time in the state that day, and a school record-tying mark for the Lady Bulldogs. While the other three then rested and prepared for the 400-Yard Freestyle Relay still to come, Chelgren clinched a State berth in the 100-Yard Backstroke event, becoming the first Ottumwa girls’ swimmer to earn an individual spot at State since at least 2005, the year she was born. 

“Coming into the year I produced some times that were pretty close to some of the qualifying times…so that was a goal I definitely wanted,” Chelgren admitted. “I’m very thankful for my teammates and coaches who tried to help me calm down, work hard, and kept telling me it was going to be okay.” 

Her time of 1:00.29 was the 21st-fastest time in all State qualifiers, however she had to wait over four hours to finally receive confirmation that she had indeed earned a spot at State with the final qualifiers being announced by the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union once all times had been tallied. Moses notified Chelgren immediately when the final qualifiers had been released. 

“I was checking QuikStats, seeing what place I’m in, then I got a text from Libby saying, ‘You made it!’” Chelgren explained. 

To cap off the Qualifying meet in Ankeny, the girls’ swam a 3:49.94 in the 400-Yard Freestyle, 28th-fastest in the State, and good for their third State event qualification. When asked what their mindset is going into a Relay event, both Chelgren and Moses pointed to advice they received during Youth Swim from the late Coach Mike McWilliams: “Get Ahead, Stay Ahead, Keep Ahead then Push Ahead.” 

“We all really wish that he could see this,” Chelgren said. “But we know he’s still watching us. His spirit is there with us in the water, and that really helps.” 

All four members also highlighted the work of their current Head Coach, Heather Simplot, in helping them continue to improve every time they’re in the water. Now the attention turns to Friday night’s Preliminary Meet at the Marshalltown YMCA. Competition begins at 5:00 with the Swimming Finals scheduled for Saturday at noon. After setting one school record at the Qualifiers, this group is hungry for more. 

“This Meet is really for the records,” Chelgren admitted. “I’m about a second away from the 100 Back, we’re a second away from the 400, and we’re .01 away from the 200, so we’re hoping to break those.”

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