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Read the remarkable stories behind East's second straight swim title

East wins back-to-back Class 6A swim state championships

Coming into 2018, all eyes were on East, the defending Class 6A champion. The Blue Aces held off the field to win their second straight swim title May 19, 2018 in Topeka.
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Coming into 2018, all eyes were on East, the defending Class 6A champion. The Blue Aces held off the field to win their second straight swim title May 19, 2018 in Topeka.

There were few better sights Saturday than Astrid Dirkzwager dancing before the 400-yard freestyle relay.

Dirkzwager, now a two-time sophomore All-American, put both hands above her head and hit the 'Milly Rock' dance just seconds before she anchored East's back-to-back Class 6A state swimming and diving championship. The Aces held off Lawrence Free State and Shawnee Mission East.

The Aces swam with confidence but never more than that final relay. East had virtually locked up the title, needing to finish at least fifth. They won it anyway with a team best.

Those moments were precious for seniors Julia Whitfield and Hannah Balch. The Aces' emotional leaders took it in. They paused, hugged, then swam.

It was a victory lap. The work had been done.

"Yesterday was a challenge," coach Joe Hutchinson said. "It wasn't that we swam horrible, but they were all just a little bit down about it. Today just showed the strength of their character and that they were able to hit the reset button."

Whitfield was part of the 200-yard freestyle relay team with Dirkzwager, junior Gillian Pierce-Butt and freshman Baylor McPherson. Whitifield was the anchor, and when she hit the wall and looked up at the time, she slapped at the water.

East trailed in the team standings coming into that event, but the Aces won the race, set a Class 6A record and qualified for All-American status.

"I am just so proud of these girls," Pierce-Butt said. "Knowing all the work we put into that race, I knew it was possible. I knew we could do it."

Two events later, Balch reached a feat she set for herself years ago.

It is rare for swimmers to specialize in particular events, but Balch made the 100-yard breaststroke hers. She wanted the school record and worked at it. Coach Joe Hutchinson encouraged it.

At the City League meet, Balch was still two seconds from breaking it. She got it down to a second that day. Then in preliminaries, she swam a 1:07.63, about a half second off the pace.

Before her final 100-yard breaststroke at East, she gave herself some motivation.

"I kind of teared up behind the blocks and I said, 'Last one, fast one. Go at it. Race your heart out,' " Balch said. "And I did."

Balch broke the school record with a 1:07.16. She finished third in the race but locked in the Aces' second straight title.

When she hit the wall, she let it all out. She cried as she looked up to the stands. When she turned around, she saw Hutchinson, the man who never doubted her goal.

"He came up to me in tears," she said. "He said he was proud of me."

Hutchinson was about 90 percent of what the East swimmers talked about after their victory. They cited his love for each swimmer, his passion for swimming, his commitment to winning and nurturing coaching style.

They said Hutchinson would never take credit for winning the title, and he didn't, but they insisted it was him.

"You see him jumping up and down," Whitfield said. "That's a grown man jumping because he cares so deeply. He came over to me and pulled up the points, and he teared up immediately.

"A lot of people forget that you spend more time with your team and with your coach than you do your own family. I see Hutch more than I see my dad."

The Aces said some parts were more difficult about this year's title than last year.

Hutchinson said last year was special because no one expected it, but this one was special because they knew it was possible. And everyone else did, too.

"We definitely had a target on our back," Dirkzwager said. "Hutch talked to us about that coming in and about staying humble and focusing on what we needed to do."

They did it - again.

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