The setting wasn’t quite as nerve-wracking for Alec Lebeda as a year ago, but it wasn’t that far off, either.
A year ago, not only was Lebeda a freshman making his first appearance at the Class 6A swimming championships, he was also doing it on his own as Southeast’s only state qualifier.
“I think I was more nervous for my race than I’d ever been before in my life,” said Lebeda, who placed 10th in the 500-yard freestyle — his only event. “It was really tough to look at all those people around me and know how fast they were and keep my mind on my race.”
A year older and with a handful of teammates joining Lebeda on his return trip to Topeka’s Capitol Federal Natatorium on Friday, the Buffaloes sophomore should have been a little more at ease. And to an extent, he was.
Then he stepped up on the blocks for his 500 freestyle preliminary swim and looked to his left. In the next lane was none other than Shawnee Mission East’s Aidan Holbrook, the defending champion.
“I knew he was the state champ and I was a little nervous to race him,” Lebeda said. “I just wanted to try to follow him a little bit because he’d be going really fast and I could use him to help me to better in the race.”
Lebeda used Holbrook’s presence so well, he ended up beating him to win the heat. The two wound up the fastest qualifiers overall with Lebeda tops in 4 minutes, 42.25 seconds and Holbrook just behind in 4:42.45.
“Racing against a state champion is great competition,” said Lebeda, who cut nearly five seconds off his seed time. “I’ll definitely be a lot more nervous tomorrow. I’m hoping I can beat him again, but it’s going to be a really tough race. I know how fast he can go.”
Lebeda qualified 11th in the 200 freestyle (1:48.44) and teamed with Michael Ross, Jack Thornberry and Hunter Elliott to qualify 16th in the 200 medley relay in 1:50.53.
East has solid first day — Jack Quah was pretty excited when he climbed out of the pool following his 100-yard breaststroke prelim. The East junior had gone under a minute for the first time this season, while teammate Hugh McPherson was right behind him, both putting themselves in position for the finals.
As he watched the other two heats unfold, Quah’s excitement level for Saturday’s finals escalated. He watched Washburn Rural’s Tarrin Fisher and Free State’s Evan Yoder overtake him for the top qualifying spot, setting up a potentially great showdown for the championship.
“It’s going to be real interesting this year,” said Quah, who qualified third in 59.85 seconds behind Fisher (58.13) and Yoder (59.19). “Me, Evan, Tarrin, Hugh — we all swam great races today. It’s going to be fantastic. Evan may have been holding a little back this morning, so we’ll see what he will do. I was trying to, but I was trying hard, too.”
Quah and McPherson led East to a solid showing with the Blue Aces qualifying all three relays for the finals and getting 13 individuals through to either the championship or consolation finals. McPherson led a huge effort by East in the 200 individual medley, qualifying third in 1:57.96 with teammates Matthew Randle seventh (2:01.5) and Earl Hwang eighth (2:03.99).
Quah and McPherson (sixth, 1:00.32) were joined in the 100 breast finals by Jason Ooten, who was seventh (1:01.95). East also qualified a pair for the 100 backstroke finals with Sam Hutchinson sixth (54.29) and Randle seventh (55.74). The Blue Aces’ 200 medley and 200 freestyle relays each qualified third and the 400 freestyle relay qualified sixth.