Walla Walla High School swimmer Paige Gardner entered her senior year as the school record holder in the girls 50- and 100-yard freestyle events.
But she saved her best for the last swim meet of her high school career — November’s Class 4A state swim meet in Federal Way.
Gardner lowered her school record in the 50 free, raced on two record-setting relay teams and helped Walla Walla achieve a ninth-place finish at state.
Gardner took seventh place in the 50 free and eighth in the 100 free. It was the first time she earned medals in both of her individual events at the same state meet. She also anchored Wa-Hi to fifth place in the 200 free relay and seventh in the 400 free relay.
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It was a satisfying way to cap her final swim season at Wa-Hi.
“This season, I was really focusing on just enjoying the sport and enjoying my senior year — just having fun, going out and racing,” said Gardner, the Tri-City Herald All-Area Girls Swimmer of the Year.
Gardner is joined on the Herald All-Area swimming/diving first team by Wa-Hi senior Hally Ruff and freshman Laurel Skorina; Richland seniors Claire Schaef and Marcia Kim; Southridge junior Hilary Petersen; Hanford freshman Regan Geldmacher; and Kamiakin juniors Lillian Thurber and diver Abby Winstead. Wa-Hi’s Nancy Rose is the All-Area coach of the year.
Rose coached the Wa-Hi girls to runner-up finishes in the Mid-Columbia Conference regular-season standings and at the 4A district championships. They were the only MCC team to place in the top 10 at this year’s state meet.
Rose appreciated the leadership she got from her senior team captains: Gardner, her twin sister, Hannah, and Hannah Gordon. Gardner reached out to her teammates, cheered them on at meets and set a strong example in the pool every day.
“She’s really been tough,” said Rose, who began coaching the Blue Devils in Gardner’s freshman year. “The biggest thing is how hard she’s worked in practice. They don’t just show up at meets and swim fast. They work hard. She has a really good attitude in practice and doesn’t ever complain.”
Gardner, who is also a standout in the 100 backstroke, is willing to swim any event but says the 50 free is her favorite.
“I love how tight everyone is and how it’s a race from the second you dive in,” she said.
Gardner was one of four MCC swimmers to reach the 3A or 4A state meets in the 50 free, along with Ruff, Petersen and Richland’s Neomi Mennetrot. In state preliminaries, Gardner broke her own school record with a time of 24.12.
In the 100 free, Gardner, Ruff, Petersen, Hanford’s Kayla Burck, Chiawana’s Samantha Schmidt and Kamiakin’s SaLee Westermeyer represented the MCC at state. Gardner had the fastest time among the MCC swimmers in that event as well, clocking 53.80 in the final.
Gardner’s biggest challenger all year in both events was Ruff, her Wa-Hi teammate. They finished 1-2 several times during the regular season, and Gardner edged Ruff to win district titles in the 50 and 100 free.
“I really enjoy having somebody that I can train with and who can push me,” Gardner said. “We really push each other to be the best we can be.”
When Gardner and Ruff teamed up on relays, they gave Wa-Hi an advantage with their combined speed.
On the first day of the 4A state meet, Gardner and Ruff helped power Wa-Hi to school records in the 200 free (1:40.65) and 400 free (3:39.86). The Blue Devils’ 200 free record lasted a day: In the final, the Gardner twins, Ruff and Skorina swam a 1:39.85.
Gardner also is an accomplished track athlete, advancing to state as a sophomore in the 300-meter hurdles and 4x400 relay. She will be back on the track for the Blue Devils in the spring. After that, Gardner heads to Washington State University in Pullman, where she has signed on to join the women’s swim team.
“I really fell in love with the team and the coaching staff,” said Gardner, whose older brother, Ethan, attends WSU. “It was everything I was looking for in a college swimming program.”
It’s clear that the Cougars are getting a good one in return.
2017 TRI-CITY HERALD ALL-AREA GIRLS SWIMMING/DIVING
Swimmer of the Year: Paige Gardner, sr., Walla Walla. Coach of the Year: Nancy Rose, Walla Walla.
First team: Paige Gardner, sr., Walla Walla; Hally Ruff, sr., Walla Walla; Laurel Skorina, fr., Walla Walla; Regan Geldmacher, fr., Hanford; Claire Schaef, sr., Richland; Marcia Kim, sr., Richland; Hilary Petersen, jr., Southridge; Lillian Thurber, jr., Kamiakin; Abby Winstead (diver), jr., Kamiakin.
Second team: Kayla Burck, jr., Hanford; Maddie Elliott, sr., Hanford; Megan Gelston, sr., Hanford; Kodi Younkin, fr., Hanford; Neomi Mennetrot, sr., Richland; Karma Johnson, fr., Southridge; Hannah Gardner, sr., Walla Walla; Kyra Hartley, jr., Walla Walla; Alyssa Whittington (diver), sr., Richland.