BY Nathan Jendrick
FEDERAL WAY, Washington, February 20. SWIMMERS are of a different breed. Rather than just passing the days and letting time pass, a swimmer is a dichotomy: Appreciative of every tenth of a second, yet for the majority of the year respecting time but negating it, churning out lap after lap, set after set. And then comes race time, when it’s a fight against the clock. Unsurprisingly, the clocks used during the Washington State 4A High School championships, held at the King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way, Wash., took one heck of a beating this weekend.
Starting off the meet and a terrific day for their team, the Gators from Decatur High School took the 200-yard Medley Relay in 1:38.34 ahead of Garfield with 1:39.38 and Stadium with 1:40.99. And from the depths of that Stadium relay team came one of the stars of the meet, perhaps father time himself: Stadium senior Ryan Verlatti.
Verlatti set out a plan for his high school career, forecasting his future. He swam here his freshman year and surprised many, almost as if to say, “Hello, I’m here, remember my name,” and then took his sophomore and junior years off to swim fulltime for Jay Benner at Tacoma Swim Club. Back his senior year, he showed it was all worth it.
For his first individual event, Verlatti captured the 200-yard freestyle title in fine form as he took the championship in a blazing fast 1.38.74, a time that places him third all-time in Washington State 4A swimming history. Verlatti squeaked out Kerry Tannhauser, a senior at Ballard, who posted a 1:39.17, which put his name in the books as the fifth fastest all-time.
In the 100-yard freestyle Verlatti was even more dominating. He took the lead from the start, turning at the half-way point in 21.50 and finishing well ahead in 44.57. David Bai, a junior from Thomas Jefferson, pulled in well behind at 46.94.
As good as Verlatti’s swims were, they were just an added bonus to the excitement that rang out in nearly every race. In the 200-yard Individual Medley came another standout, senior Evan Bernier of Inglemoor. His time of 1:49.71 won him his first title of the night by over four seconds. He barely missed the State and Meet Records of Andy Lloyd, who swam a 1:49.30 in 1988.
As Bernier stretched out and waited for his next event, the 50-yard freestyle went to Brian Jack (junior, Wilson HS) in 21.19, three one-hundredths slower than his preliminary swim and almost five tenths faster than his nearest competition, a surprisingly fast freshman from Stadium, Cole Scarbrough.
The 1-meter diving title went to Thomas Evans (junior, Inglemoor) with 435.70 points, taking it convincingly over Ben Shea (junior, Wenatchee) who earned 358.50 points, and ahead of senior Justin “Spud” Mertlich (Emerald Ridge) with 350.25 points.
After there were no scores to be raised near the diving well, it was time for the 100-yard Butterfly and time for Evan Bernier’s final solo performance at a high school championship. Seeded almost a full second favorite, Bernier didn’t disappoint just because there wasn’t anyone to be seen in his peripheral vision.
He set off with a half body length lead at the first turn and by the time he hit the half way point, it was all but over. Bernier came crashing to the wall and his second title of the night with a 49.22, the fifth fastest time in Washington HS history, but still well off the 48.14 State record set in 1992 by Ugur Taner.
While old champions were maintaining their records, albeit just barely, Kerry Tannhauser came back from his second place performance earlier in the night to own the 500-yard freestyle with a 4:27.81 swim, which ironically also placed him, as his 200 swim did: Fifth fastest all-time. The title was his second consecutive 500-yard championship, and was the closest anyone in recent memory has come to Wes Oliver’s 1995 State record of 4:23.06.
And finally, as the day wore on, the 200-yard freestyle relay of Wilson High took down a meet record. Their 1:26.94 All-American status swim raised the bar that Moses Lake had set in 1996 at 1:27.35. Sparking the debate though that swimmers of all divisions should swim together at these championships, the Rams of Wilson were still shy of the State record from 2003 and set by Mercer Island, a 3A school, at 1:23.84.
The 100-yard back was taken by a junior from Mt. Tahoma, Jesse Stipek. His time of 51.55 was the clear winner, while the battle behind remained fierce. Second place went to Justin Kopetzky (senior, Capital) in 53.37, third to Chris Chapman (senior, Inglemoor) in 53.42, fourth to Scarbrough in 53.59 and fifth to Jeremy Gregory (junior, Rogers) in 54.13.
In the 100-yard breaststroke Eric Johnson (senior, Decatur) proved to be an integral part of his team's success as he picked up a title with a quick 57.57, over a second ahead of Paul Hughes (senior, Curtis) who came chasing in with a 58.60.
And then as with every good story, with triumph there is tragedy. The Stadium Tigers went into the final race, the 400-yard freestyle relay, tied for first place with Inglemoor. Both teams boasted a swimmer that had an iconic meet, solidified earlier in the day when Verlatti and Bernier tied for the annual Outstanding Athlete of the Year Award, and both teams with an equal shot at walking away victorious. With 151 points, both teams were just one point ahead of the Decatur Gators who had battled to 150 points.
The crowd knew the meet was close and despite being earsplitting loud with cheers throughout the competition, all fell silent as the announcer called off the scores. Nearly cinema worthy, the meet would come down to a three-way heat in the final event: Winner takes all.
For the first 200 yards Inglemoor was dominating the event, leading both Decatur and Stadium by deep margins. Each time one would make a move, Inglemoor would stretch it out longer and keep their distance. Into the third leg Stadium, so close to victory, fell back to fourth while Decatur still battled half of a body-length behind.
And perhaps the swim with the most heart and valiant effort behind it, came in the final 100-yards. Verlatti, hoping against hope that he could bring a title for his swim team, the school and a third for himself, dove in a far-gone fourth, two body-lengths behind still-leading Inglemoor. But then, Verlatti turned on the heat and quickly picked up the pace. He crossed Wilson, which had been in third, off his list and went for it all. With 50-yards left he caught Decatur, which also was fighting for the lead. Down the final stretch Verlatti was still moving forward and taking stroke after stroke. Gone was Inglemoor. Now it was Decatur and Stadium for the championship. Inside the flags it was still up in the air, but it all came to a close with Decatur out-touching Stadium, and Verlatti’s crowd-inspiring comeback, 3:10.89 to 3:10.97
The swimmers who competed today will take these memories, and these times, and build on them during their swimming careers, should they choose to continue them. For some it’s onto collegiate swimming, but others it’s time to hang up the goggles. But for any of them who learned a lesson they can apply to life, State medal or not, they’ve won.