OTTUMWA – Perhaps it’s fitting how Tuesday’s CIML Metro dual with Des Moines Roosevelt ended for the Ottumwa girls swimming team.
Just three races before competing in the 400 freestyle relay, Bulldog sophomore Leah Chelgren injured her shoulder while finishing second in the 100-yard backstroke. No one would have blamed Chelgren for stepping aside and allowing a healthier swimmer to take her place in one of Ottumwa’s biggest races.
Chelgren, however, was taught from a young age by coaches like Mike McWilliams to continue to push through adversity in the pool. Just minutes after injuring her shoulder, Chelgren led off a winning swim for the Bulldogs in the final race of a special night as the Bulldogs competed with CIML Metro powerhouse Des Moines Roosevelt, ultimately falling 94-60 in one of the closer battles between the two programs in some time.
In between battling the Roughriders, winning five of the 12 varsity races, the Bulldogs and the city of Ottumwa took time to honor longtime head coach Mike McWilliams. The city officially named the competition pool at the Beach after the man that guided OHS swimming for over 40 years and continued even after retiring as high school coach in 2006 to work with young swimmers like Chelgren, and the youth programs including the Barracudas and Hurricanes.
“Both Libby (Moses) and I, as well as a lot of other girls growing up in the YMCA program, have gotten the chance to work with Mike,” Chelgren said. “He will push you and push you and push you until you’re ready to fall over, but he’ll be there with you no matter what. We’re lucky to have a coach like him.”
Moses, who helped Ottumwa win a pair of relay races, may have saved her biggest contribution for outside the pool. Moments after Chelgren hurt her shoulder, Moses and teammate Ashton Brown worked to help Chelgren work through the pain ahead of the 400 relay.
“Leah is one of the main people our relay. I was just trying to help out a teammate however I could whenever they’re in need,” Moses said. “I was pretty concerned. This is one of the biggest races we have. We found out Sunday night that we’re ranked 25th in the state in the 400 relay, which puts us in position to qualify for state. We know we finally have a shot. It shows how much Leah cares for her to pull through and compete even after an injury.”
Saige Knight, who also worked with McWilliams starting at the Ottumwa Country Club pool at the age of 9, maintained her perfect home record by taking part in four more wins including a thrilling 400 freestyle finale. Chelgren, Moses, Mac Payne and Knight were neck in neck with Maddy Lohmeier, Anya Kozlowski, Alla Lamark and Kallie Von der Linde all the way to end with Knight edging Von Der Linde by just over a quarter of second, giving Ottumwa the win in 4:08.65.
“I told the girls before that relay to go out there and show (Roosevelt) exactly what state swimmers look like,” Ottumwa coach Cherie Langland said. “I hope we showed Mike that this program is in good hands. I hope he felt that same excitement watching this meet that he had when he was the head coach. Our plan was to try and make him proud. I swam for Mike. I hope every day I can make the people that have had great impacts on my life proud.”
“I feel like we made Mike proud. I feel like he’s not going to forget any of this,” Knight added. “He’s taught a lot of people how to swim the right way.”
When Knight wasn’t winning races, earning victories in the 50-yard freestyle (27.3 seconds) and 100-yard butterfly (1:07.2), the OHS senior was doing her best McWilliams coaching impression walking up and down the pool encouraging her teammates at every turn. Chelgren added an individual win of her own in the 100-yard freestyle, beating Roosevelt’s Maddy Lohmeier by less than a second in 1:00.39.
“I felt like, because of the team we were going against and team that could push us in each event, we could get faster by pushing ourselves each time we were in the water,” Knight said. “Getting closer and closer to state and seeing where we’re ranked right now, it makes us want to get higher up. We want to not only get to state, we want to challenge to finish in the top 10 at state.”
Ottumwa’s (2-2, 0-1 CIML Metro) opened the night with an impressive swim from Chelgren, Moses, Payne and Knight in the 200 free relay. The teammates lowered their time in the first varsity race, beating Roosevelt by nearly three seconds in a time of 2:03.82.
“When they improved even more on their best time in that event, I thought that was a great way to kick off this meet,” Langland said. “Our goal coming into this night was to rattle Roosevelt’s cage a little bit. I’m sure they came down here figuring they would win, but we wanted to let Roosevelt know that we’re here to compete this year. The girls have all been working hard. They all had the same plan and they all made it happen.”