TOPEKA — Trying to pick her top moment at the Class 6A swimming and diving championships should have been tough call for Northwest's Nikki Daniels.
There were certainly plenty to choose from Saturday at Capitol Federal Natatorium.
Was it her long-awaited victory in the 200-yard individual medley? Or maybe her third straight 100 breaststroke crown? Or how about being named the Class 6A swimmer of the year?
Yet it took Daniels, oh, maybe a second to make her decision.
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"The IM for sure," Daniels said. "That race could have gone any way. It was the toughest race I've ever swam in my life and all three of us, we would have never gotten those times by ourselves."
Indeed, the 200 IM was arguably the race of the day as Daniels, Southeast's Emily Chesser and Olathe Northwest's Natalie Morris were locked in a tight battle from start to finish. Just 0.49 seconds separated the three at the end with Daniels winning in 2 minutes, 7.39 seconds, narrowly nipping Morris (2:07.61) and Chesser (2:07.88).
That victory, coupled with her continued domination of the 100 breaststroke, led to Daniels earning All-State honors as well as being named swimmer of the year.
"I wasn't sure because (SM East's) Marston (Fries) also won two races," Daniels said. "I just didn't know how it would go. That was definitely nice."
The 200 IM title had eluded Daniels ever since an 11th-place showing as a freshman. The Grizzly senior moved up to third as a sophomore and then seemed poised to capture the event last year before Washburn Rural freshman Sammie Schurig stepped in and snagged it away, leaving Daniels in second.
This year, it was good friend Chesser and Morris standing in the way after that duo qualified 1-2 on Friday. But after slipping to third after the backstroke leg, Daniels claimed the race lead on the breaststroke leg and then held off her rivals down the stretch for the victory.
"That was my focus coming into this," Daniels said. "Once I figured out Sammie wasn't swimming this year, I just had to have it. I knew it would be close the whole way. I knew I had to get as big of a lead as I could during the breast because they were going to be coming after me."
As a three-time winner of the 100 breast, that wasn't a problem. Daniels dominated the finals of that race once again, clocking a 1:04.74 that was more than three seconds ahead of second-place Reilly Moore of Lawrence Free State (1:07.89).
Daniels' only state loss in the event came as a freshman to Trinity Academy's Jamie Bruce.
"That one has always been my race and I love swimming that one," she said.
Daniels also helped Northwest to a third-place finish in the 200 medley relay, teaming with Kara Aaby, Haley Stienbach and Maddie Bazzelle for a time of 1:52.59, and an eighth in the 400 freestyle relay, teaming with Stienbach, Aaby and Julia Blasdel for a 3:55.97. Aaby added an eighth in the 100 butterfly (1:01.99) as the Grizzlies finished seventh in the team standings.
Chesser, meanwhile, had been the top qualifier in both the 200 IM and the 100 backstroke on Friday. But she couldn't hold that position in either race, taking third in both. The backstroke final was nearly as tight as the IM with SM West's Kate Snyder finishing in 58.46 to just nip Olathe Northwest's Mackenzie Neeley by .02 seconds (58.48) and Chesser by .23 (58.69).
Class 5-1A — Trinity Academy's Chelsey Kilgore admitted there was some pressure being the defending champion in the 50-yard freestyle. The real pressure she felt in Saturday's finals, however, was from Blue Valley Southwest's Megan Becker.
"I could feel her the whole way," Kilgore said. "In fact, toward the end I really thought she was going to get me. I was like, 'I've got to put my head down and go.' "
And go Kilgore did, out-touching Becker by .13 seconds to defend her title. Kilgore won the crown in 24.72 seconds, while Becker finished in 24.85.
The Knights sophomore wasn't able to double up with the 100 freestyle title as she did a year ago, but only because her competition in the event also happened to be the Class 5-1A swimmer of the meet, Topeka West's Emily Dicus. Kilgore finished second in 53.83, while Dicus became the first girl in Kansas history to go under 50 seconds with a 49.45.
Independent's Brooke Brittain also had the burden of being a defending champion and facing some serious challengers to her title. And like Kilgore, she was able to successfully defend it, barely.
Four swimmers finished within .54 seconds of each other in the 100 backstroke with Brittain just nipping Trinity's Emily Knocke at the finish. Brittain won in 59.17, while Knocke (59.29), Blue Valley's Becca Bond (59.376) and Carroll's Madison Hutchison (59.81) were right on her heels.
"I knew it was going to be stacked, but I tried to take advantage of that," Brittain said. "It was a lot of pressure, but I really like it. It gives me a fire in my belly."
Andover Central's Gina Cernohous won the 200 individual medley in 2:11.11, a two-second drop from her top qualifying time on Friday. A runner-up a year ago after qualifying first, Cernohous held a slight lead on Trinity's Knocke after three legs, but put her away on the freestyle. She also took second in the 500 freestyle.
The meet was delayed by nearly three hours by lightning and a tornado warning with swimmers, coaches and fans evacuated to Capital City School across the parking lot from the natatorium.