Girls high school swimming in the Madison area has never had it so good.
Last year saw a high-water mark for area schools at the WIAA Division 1 and 2 state meets, with Middleton and Madison Edgewood claiming state team titles — and Verona/Mount Horeb and McFarland claiming runner-up trophies.
Area swimmers and divers also took home 11 individual and relay titles at the two state meets — nearly half of all the titles awarded at state.
And more of the same is expected this season. Madison's swimming scene has never been stronger.
All four top teams from last year return a strong core of their state-meet swimmers and divers, and Middleton in Division 1 and Edgewood in Division 2 rate as heavy favorites to sweep state team titles again. Those top-tier teams are augmented by a wealth of talent that saw Madison-area teams capture five of the top 10 spots in the D1 team race last year, and four of the top eight spots in the D2 state field.
“Our team has some big goals set, and we know we need to put in lots of hard work before taper time to achieve those goals,” said Kelly Rodriguez, a senior at Edgewood who has won back-to-back titles in the 200-yard freestyle and leads a Crusaders squad that set an all-time Division 2 scoring mark last year with 337 points. “I’m excited to see what we can accomplish.”
The success of Madison-area swimmers at the high school state meets didn’t come out of the blue. Before becoming high school swimmers, many of the area’s top swimmers were winning state titles for their club teams at statewide meets.
McFarland’s Alex Moderski, Middleton’s Gabriela Pierobon Mays, Madison West’s Katrina Marty, and Verona/Mt. Horeb’s Grace Bennin — all winners of individual races at the high school D1 and D2 state meets last year — also won multiple state titles during their pre-high school club years.
A key to the success, according to those who watch the sport closely, is the presence of strong club programs that feed swimmers into high schools with a wealth of solid training and racing experience during the non-high school season. Badger Aquatics Club and the Madison Aquatics Club are two of the largest and most successful clubs in the state, and smaller clubs like the McFarland Spartan Sharks and DeForest Area Swim Club have established strong feeder systems into their namesake high schools and neighbors.
Other factors: a solid group of high school coaches, and the continued role of the summer Madison All City Swim and Dive League, as well as the summer Tri-County Swim Conference, in generating interest among young swimmers.
“Wisconsin swimming is unique — the Madison area even more so,” said Lauren Cabalka, who grew up swimming in the All City League at Middleton, swam for the Cardinals in high school, and coached them to the first state title in program history last fall.
"We have an incredible group of programs, teams, and coaches who all work together to ensure that swimmers, regardless of the season, are working to their fullest potential, getting better, and above all else, having fun.
“It’s a great cycle of training and definitely what keeps kids active in the sport.”
In particular, the reach of the Madison All City League — with 13 teams in the Madison area, based at neighborhood and municipal pools, and more than 2,000 swimmers competing in the summer — can’t be under-estimated, said Edgewood coach Emily Schwabe, who has helped bring home two D2 team titles with the Crusaders and previously coached in the league at Shorewood Hills.
“When it comes to (the) Madison (area), it’s hands-down the wide net the All City League casts to getting kids involved in swimming, complemented by the quality of competitive club teams,” she said.
With all of the recent highlights experienced by Madison-area swimmers, coaches say the key to continued success is not thinking the past will automatically yield the same results in the future.
“Above all, I expect them to train like they’ve never won and compete like they’ve never lost. … A confident, but humble, mindset,” Cabalka said of her Cardinals squad.
Added Schwabe, whose Crusaders will be seeking their third consecutive state title: “This will be a year of reminding the team that they must earn another state title, rather than thinking they are defending it. We …will be continuing to get the team to buy into how hard it is to stay at the top of Wisconsin high school swimming.”