Abbey Lassley could feel them coming.
To the North sophomore’s right, it was Olathe Northwest’s Mackenzie Neeley. To her left, it was Shawnee Mission West’s Kate Snyder.
In between was a somewhat panicky Lassley.
"I knew I had to go because I could see them coming," Lassley said of her challengers in the 100-yard backstroke final Saturday at the Class 6A State Swimming Championships. "My legs were dead and I couldn’t kick anymore. I was just spinning my arms, telling myself I could do it … that was one crazy race."
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Lassley survived the frantic finish to win her first state title. With Neeley and Snyder charging hard, Lassley was able to hold them off, winning in 59.22 seconds. Snyder was second in 59.48 and Neeley was third in 59.78.
"I was a little shocked," said Lassley, who had been the only swimmer to break the minute mark during Friday’s preliminaries. "I figured everyone would go 58s like they did last year, so I thought I had to cut off a second. When I looked at the clock, I couldn’t breathe. It was unreal."
The younger sister of former state champion Logan Lassley, Abbey has spent all season staring up at his state-championship banner and dreaming of adding her own. She missed out in her first race of the day, taking second in the 50 freestyle behind Free State freshman Courtney Caldwell.
"I wanted a banner for me," Lassley said. "My Opa (grandpa) died a couple years ago and he got see Logan win his. He always encouraged us, and that was like the favorite thing for him to talk about, us swimming. So I wanted to win for him.
"(Caldwell) is an amazing swimmer, so it was a free-for-all for the rest of us for second. That felt good, too."
Southeast’s Emily Chesser nearly made it two fantastic finishes in a row, but came up oh, say a fingernail, shy of winning a state title in the 100 breaststroke. Dueling with Washburn Rural’s Molly Christensen and Blue Valley North’s Grace Stafford, the finish was nearly a dead heat with .03 seconds separating the top-three finishers.
Stafford won in 1:08.03, just .01 ahead of Chesser and .03 ahead of Christensen.
Hansen’s day — Prior to the start of her 100-yard freestyle final, Andover coach Jarred Gaskill had a message for senior Audra Hansen.
"Today is your day," he told Hansen.
Not only did Hansen go out and add the 100 freestyle title to the 50 freestyle crown she had won earlier in the day, but Hansen capped off her meet by being named the Class 5-1A swimmer of the meet.
"This is crazy, so exciting," Hansen said. "It’s just stuff you never expect. I wanted to do well today and I think I did everything I could."
Hansen had qualified first in both her individual events, but knew that she was going to have to hold off Trinity Academy’s Chesley Kilgore, particularly in the 50 freestyle where Kilgore was the two-time defending champion. Sure enough, when they made the turn at the 25-yard mark, Kilgore had a slight edge on Hansen.
But Hansen’s strength in the event is her finish and she closed like a champion. Not only did she track Kilgore down, but even pulled away a bit to win in 24.73 seconds
"I never get out very fast in the 50," Hansen said. "I knew I’d have to get her on the turn and the second 25. After I saw her on the turn, I was like, ’Oh no, I’ve got to go a little faster.’ I knew I was chasing her."
In the 100, Hansen was in control almost from the start. She built a half-second lead on Kilgore by the 50-yard mark and cruised from there, winning in 52.92 seconds.
Hansen also helped the Trojans’ 200 medley relay to a runner-up finish and the 200 freestyle relay to a third-place showing. Teammate Meg Plank added a pair of top-six finishes and Katie League added a sixth as the Trojans finished sixth overall.
Change is good — Kate Wickham was simply ready for a change after a moderately successful sophomore campaign last year, so she made a tough choice during the offseason. After spending most of her youth swimming for the Wichita Swim Club, Wickham switched to the Northwest YMCA Neptunes to work with coach Candace Pearson.
"It was just a change in coaching and training styles," Wickham said of the reason for the switch. "It really worked for me."
After placing sixth in both of her individual events at last year’s Class 5-1A State meet, Wickham upheld her top seed in the 200-yard freestyle final, as the Independent junior pulled away from Aquinas’ Kaela Ropson for a relatively easy win. Wickham also finished third in the 500 freestyle.
"I really owe it all to (Pearson)," Wickham said. "I started training with her after state last year and it’s just been a huge difference for me."
Wickham trailed both Ropson and Newton’s Sarah Schmidt through the first half of the race, but once she made the turn for the final 100, Wickham took control. She overtook both early on the third lap and gradually pulled away, finishing in 1 minute 58.48 seconds, well ahead of Ropson’s runner-up time of 2:00.18. Schmidt faded to seventh, while Andover’s Meg Plank moved up to third at 2:00.67.
"I was really hoping to just stay with them on the first 100 and then pull away on the second 100," Wickham said.
First for Newton — As strong as Newton’s program has been throughout the years, the Railers had yet to have a single girls’ state champion. Foreign exchange student Betti Fuhr changed that Saturday.
The transfer from Frankfurt, Germany, was dominating, winning the 200 individual medley by three and a half seconds in 2:08.62 and later adding the 100 breaststroke title by nearly two seconds in 1:07.60. Fuhr also led the 200 freestyle relay to a title and brought the 400 freestyle relay to a third-place finish.
"I didn’t really know the tradition and I didn’t really know I could win," Fuhr said. "I thought I’d do what I can and see how it goes."
Newton enjoyed its best showing ever at the 5-1A state meet, taking second to Blue Valley (303 points to 262). The Railers also got a pair of top-three finishes from Christian Entz, two top-eight showings from Sarah Schmidt, Sara Slifer and Katrina Gerbrand and a fourth from the 200 medley relay.
• Carroll’s Madison Hutchison fell just short of her first state gold, taking second in the 100 butterfly. Hutchison led Lawrence Seabury’s Phoebe Grabill at the 50-yard mark, but couldn’t hold the Seahawk off and finished just .19 seconds away from first in 59.34. Hutchison also took second in the 100 backstroke to Blue Valley Southwest’s Anna Rasmussen.