By Justin Sokeland
BEDFORD – The finish line seemed unreachable, the wall that kept sliding back the more Bedford North Lawrence swimmers Ursula Patton and Emma Gabhart strived for it. Somehow, despite supreme obstacles and an upstream current, they made it.
After a season of training shutdowns and pauses, the BNL duo will compete in the IHSAA state preliminary races on Friday afternoon. That alone, when offseason workouts were eliminated, when pools were empty and the future was as cloudy as a muddy pond, is an amazing accomplishment.
Despite the months of idleness, the Stars churned and returned to form, winning sectional championships to qualify for the final stage of the state tournament.
Gabhart, a sophomore who made a big splash, set school records while winning the 200-yard individual medley and the 100 breaststroke during the sectional at Jasper. She will make her first state appearance, while Patton powered to the 500 freestyle title and advanced to the state meet at IUPUI for the fourth year in a row.
The top eight in each event (following the two prelim sessions, split this year to cut down on possible virus protocol issues) will qualify for the championship race on Saturday afternoon, and places 9-16 will advance to the state consolation.
For the Stars, this finish line is sweet. They spent seven months in dry dock, sidelined during the COVID-19 pandemic that shuttered swimming pools, and didn’t return to action until late October. Swimmers are used to doing miles in the water, not weeks on the couch.
“It’s just how far we’ve come this season,” Gabhart said. “I’m surprised we could make it this far. I’m pretty proud of what we’ve all accomplished.”
“I really didn’t think we’d get to finish the season, and the fact we did, I was amazed,” BNL coach Adam Young said. “That was the nightmare I wanted to avoid, to have the kids work like they did and and then have us not cross the finish line.
“I fully expected to have an absolute mountain to climb. It just wasn’t the case. It has been bonkers amazing.”
They did it in style. Gabhart shattered the school record in the IM, winning in 2:09.11, and reset her own mark in the breaststroke in 1:06.55. Patton cruised home in 5:35.86 in the 500.
The last challenge is cutting those times and proving their seeding for the state meet is off. Gabhart is 22nd in the IM and 25th in the breaststroke, while Patton is 32nd in the 500.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Patton said. “I get to watch one of my best friends swim up there as well. So it will be fun. I’ll make the most of it, since it’s my last time.
“I’m just going to do my best. I was a little nervous at the beginning of the season. Times were not where they usually are bcasuse I had not swam in so long. But I felt much better and more confident as we got closer to sectional time.”
Patton, now a senior, finished 31st in last year’s state meet in 5:29.24.
Gabhart will need a two-second time drop, based on seed times, to jump into the top-16 mix in each of her events. That’s possible as she shifted her taper conclusion to peak for the state.
“The key is being able to pull off another drop this weekend, and that’s hard to do,” Young said. “Sometimes there’s a lot more adrenaline when you have a chance to win the race in the sectional. It’s tough to reproduce that.
“Emma is one of those great swimmers that works hard every day, wants to get better, she’s very competitive. She will be very motivated.”
Gabhart’s main event is the breaststroke, and she will be swimming in a heat race that will include top-seeded Carmel star Margaret Love.
“I’m hoping I can drop time,” Gabhart said. “It takes a lot of work on technique and the little details. It’ll be pretty tough. I’ll try to keep up with them and see happens.”
Action in the first prelim session will begin at noon, with the second session at 5:30 p.m. The championships and consolations will begin at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday.