Claire Schaef had a swim season unlike any Richland High School freshman before her.
Schaef, the Tri-City Herald’s All-Area Girls Swimmer of the Year, played a key role in helping the Bombers win their first state team championship.
Last month in Federal Way, Schaef tied for the top time in the 500-yard freestyle preliminaries and was second in the 200 free. In finals, she was the runner-up in the 500 and fifth in the 200.
It was only natural, perhaps, that Schaef was on edge ahead of her first state finals. Those nerves were her biggest opponent in the 200 free.
“She’s very high-tempo like Janet Evans, but she fell behind in the first 10 yards significantly,” Richland/Hanford coach Randy Willis said. “It wasn’t until the last 50 yards that she finally started to snap out of it and pick it up.”
Afterward, Schaef took a mental timeout as she swam laps in the warm-down pool.
“I kind of realized that nothing bad was going to happen if I were to fail,” Schaef said. “I was so nervous. Just getting it over with helped me tremendously.”
Failure wasn’t in the cards for Schaef that Saturday.
Schaef went on to have what she called her best race of the season in the 500 free. She finished in 5 minutes, 4.01 seconds, slightly lower than her preliminary time of 5:04.03.
Mariner junior Brianna Lucien won in 5:03.69, but the distance between her and Schaef was a lot wider during the race.
“I was a body length and a half behind,” Schaef said. “It showed me in all my races just how much more I have to give because I won’t die, I guess, from exhaustion. Every swimmer worries about running out of energy and hitting that wall and not being able to go on.”
Schaef then led off two relays for Richland, which finished third in the 200 free and fifth in the 400 free.
“Personally, I just gave everything I had for my team,” Schaef said. “Even if I was tired, it wasn’t an excuse. Any lost points is the difference between winning and losing. I pushed myself in the relays to get my team out in front.”
The 400 was the final event, and Willis deduced that if the Bombers could hang with Newport of Bellevue, they would have a shot at the state championship.
Schaef and her teammates did exactly what Willis wanted, finishing right behind fourth-place Newport.
As the Bombers stood on the podium to accept their medals, Willis let them in on a secret: The state team trophy was theirs.
Richland and Jackson of Everett tied for the title with 169 points, two-time defending champion Newport had 168 points, and Wenatchee finished with 164 in the closest finish in state history.
“When we found out we had won the meet, we were screaming out our lungs,” Schaef said. “We had made history. It was the greatest feeling.”
Six Bombers are on the all-area first team: Schaef, senior McKenzie Schroder, juniors Alyssa Musick, Lauren Hall and Kelsea Hinkley, and sophomore Katie Schroder. Kamiakin sophomore Madison Thurber and Hanford freshman Maddie Elliott and senior Kayla Burnight make up the rest of the team.
For Willis, who coached the Bombers to the first team championship won by a Mid-Columbia squad, finally winning the big prize was a special moment.
“I’m still probably 40,000 feet up, I really am,” said Willis, the Herald’s All-Area Coach of the Year. “I haven’t yet landed. A whole bunch of things had to happen for that to be possible and by a bunch of teams, and in the end, the fact that we could do that without winning a single event is a testament to every one of the girls there and every person that swam.”
That includes Schaef, who made the Mid-Columbia Conference first team in the 200 and 500 free and was the district champion in both events.
“It was a freshman that had the highest places for us, but she was an unlikely source,” Willis said. “Lisa Bratton was similar. She was a little tight and nervous as well, and the next year she came back, and you’ve seen what’s happened since. She came back and got better and better.”
Former Richland swimmer Bratton, who competed at this past summer’s Pan Pacific Championships before starting her freshman year at Texas A&M, won the first of her five state titles as a sophomore.
It might be hard for Schaef to top a team title in her freshman season with the Bombers, but she’s eager to return to the highest step of the state podium next year as an individual champion.
“I didn’t really know what I could do (before state),” Schaef said. “I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I know what I can do, and now I can build on it.”