OTTUMWA — It may not be the Statue of Liberty.
For Cherie Langland, it's still a pretty amazing gift the Ottumwa boys swimming team received from France in exchange student Armel Bazin. What started with a chance text from Bazin turned into an impressive opening-night debut with four wins in four races for the Bulldogs, leading OHS to three dual wins over Centerville, Oskaloosa and Keokuk on Tuesday at Mike McWilliams Pool.
"I was initially getting text messages from Armel. I didn't know anything about him. I just assumed it was just another student at school that was interested in being part of the team," Langland said. "We make it very clear that we accept everyone from all experience levels, so of course I was more than happy to have another student join our program.
"Who I thought was coming was very different from who showed up that next day for practice. When Armel got in the pool the first time, every swimmer took a triple take. We were completely shocked and pleasantly surprised."
As Bazin proved on Tuesday, the newest addition to the OHS boys swimming team brings a dynamic new element to the Bulldogs. In his debut swim, Bazin won the 200-yard individual medley in 2:14.66 beating Centerville senior Devin Myhr by almost 7.6 seconds.
Bazin put Ottumwa (3-0) ahead for good in their closest dual of the night with a win in 100-yard freestyle. With state placewinner Kevin Kretz watching on due to Fairfield being unable to participate in athletics while going to school virtually this week, Bazin filled in with a winning time of 53.12 seconds in the 100-yard freestyle as the Bulldogs eventually put away an 81-66 win over Centerville.
"I still feel a little weak on my stroke, but I still did quite well," Bazin said. "I swam in France for 10 years before I came over here. I heard there was a swim team here (at Ottumwa), so I wanted to join. Everyone's been so friendly. It makes me glad I chose to swim again."
Ottumwa added an 88-45 win over Keokuk and an 87-34 win over Oskaloosa to their final tally of success on opening night. Carson Shively, coming off an all-state season of cross-country at Davis County, went the distance in the pool to win the 500-yard freestyle for the Bulldogs in 5:45 while Bazin opened winning free relay swims for OHS in the 200 yard (1:44.55) and 400 yard (3:49.66) races.
"We were missing quite a few swimmers. Kevin is one of six swimmers from Fairfield that had to sit out. The plan is for them to be back in class and back with us next week competing," Langland said. "We also had a couple other kids dealing with injuries, but I didn't even think about it as the meet was going on. We had so many solid races. Everyone has been working hard wanting to hold on to the season and accomplish certain goals.
"COVID-19 is a challenge. We just have to continue to adjust to try and leap over that hurdle. The end goals throughout the season remains the same. Everyone wants to continue to seek personal-best times. We want to do some things at state. This was a great way to open our season to show what we can do and improve on what we accomplished."
Centerville had the program's most successful single night as the Big Reds earned two wins in three duals, beating Keokuk 88-45 and Oskaloosa 86-37. After winning just one dual in its first season of competition last year, Centerville got the program's second season off to a winning start with Jobie Smith, Devin Myhr, Reece Sells and John White finishing first in the opening 200-yard medley relay in 1:53.24.
"That was the first relay win we've had in school history," Centerville head swimming coach Amber White said. "Last year, we had an occasional seven swimmers with most of them also competing for the bowling team. This year, I've got 11 swimmers. We were excited to kick this season off. We were supposed to start last week at Burlington. We have put in the time in the pool working around the restrictions. Since we're a small program, we've been able to stay in the pool. We haven't had any breaks in our practice routine."
White added a win for Centerville in the 50-yard freestyle, winning in 23.35 seconds while Myhr finished first in the 100-yard breaststroke in 1:09.22. The Big Reds will return to Ottumwa to face the Bulldogs again next Thursday, Dec. 17, at 5:30 p.m.