Richmond-Burton freshman Eleni Gewalt prefers her swim bag to traditional book bags. Swim bags are sturdy, hardy, and Gewalt uses one as her backpack during school.
Caitlin Pitchford, a former swimmer and swim coach herself, noticed it right away when Gewalt settled into Pitchford’s math class.
“I started to do my math work and she asked if I was a swimmer,” Gewalt said. “She was asking me questions about swimming. ‘Would you be interested in swimming at sectionals?’”
Gewalt had found the guide she was looking for.
R-B does not have a swim team or even a pool. Gewalt, who lives in Spring Grove, travels to the RecPlex in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, after school to swim with the Pleasant Prairie Patriots Swim Team.
Gewalt knew swimmers from schools without a team could participate at IHSA sectionals, she didn’t know how to go about doing it.
Pitchford offered to help Gewalt through the process.
“I’m grateful that everything aligned perfectly,” Gewalt said. “What were the odds that she would be the coach that wants to take me and I was just sitting in the class not knowing?”
Flash forward to Saturday’s IHSA Lake Forest Sectional, Gewalt won the 100-yard breaststroke (1:05.60) and qualified for this weekend’s state finals.
“I was out of my mind watching it happen,” Pitchford said. “It was so cool, such a great feeling.”
As far as R-B athletic officials can tell, Gewalt is the school's first girls swimming state qualifier in its history. IHSA.org tracks state qualifiers as far back as 1996.
“It’s kind of cool because nobody swims from my school,” Gewalt said. “I’m the only one and I’m just going to prove that I can do this. I’m so thankful for [the school’s] support and I’m thankful for Mrs. Pitchford stepping up as my coach.”
Pitchford served as Gewalt’s coach at sectionals and will do so at the state finals, which begin Friday in Evanston.
“I don’t know what to expect exactly,” Gewalt said. “I’m just ready to bring my A-game and go out there and swim my heart out.”
Gewalt isn’t the only local athlete competing at the girls swimming and diving state finals.
McHenry’s Payton Lange will compete in the 200 and 500 freestyles. Crystal Lake co-op’s Julia Gindorf will compete in the 200 individual medley. Jenny Tokarz, of the Jacobs co-op, will compete in the 200 freestyle.
A year ago, Crystal Lake co-op’s Makayla Nietzel set state records in four events for athletes with disabilities. Nietzel, who is legally blind, won the 50, 100, 200 freestyles, and the 100 breaststroke last year. She returns to state this year after winning all four events at the Stevenson Sectional.