Illinois swim & dive makes historic improvements in first-place finish at House of Champions Invitational

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Photo courtesy of Illini Swim & Dive Twitter

Swimmer Abby Cabush swimming freestyle during one of her meets this season. Cabush broke the school’s record for the 200-yard freestyle and the team placed first overall.

By Jonathan Alday, Staff Writer

The Illinois swim & dive team faced off on Thursday and finished on Saturday against eight other teams in the annual IUPUI House of Champions Invitational to finish off its fall season at the IUPUI Natatorium in Indianapolis. 

After a two week break following a busy October schedule, the Illini got back to work, hitting the weight room and pool.

“After Vanderbilt, we got back to training and working and spent a lot of time focusing on the little details that end up making a huge difference in the races,” said head coach Sue Novitsky.

All that focus and hard work didn’t stop them from being loose on meet day, as the athletes were seen warming up and having a dance battle before the meet began, via the team’s Instagram.

“It was a thing my freshman year; it was just something that we noticed helped our team a lot,” said senior Abby Cabush. “Coach Sue told us that if we were the most energetic team, it would really show the rest of the pool who we were. It brings us together as a team, laugh, have fun together and build traditions.”

Illinois took that energy and started the Thursday preliminary events off strong, with 11 Illini swimmers qualifying for finals in the 50-yard freestyle, 500-yard freestyle and 200-yard individual medley.

The day one finals kicked off with a first-place finish in the 200-yard freestyle relay (1:32.17), headed by Cabush, sophomore Laurel Bludgen, freshman Molly Yetter and junior Isabelle Guerra.

Senior Sidney Kennedy and sophomore Meghan Niziolek then followed up with a season-best second-place finish in the B-Finals (5:00.86) and a lifetime best second-place finish in the C-Finals (5:02.40) for the 500-yard freestyle, respectively.

By the end of the day one finals, 18 lifetime bests were broken and 46 season bests were rewritten. The Illini were in third place out of nine, an impressive start to a long weekend of swimming against high quality competition.

The start of the second day of preliminary swimming saw 20 swimmers qualifying for final events. Notable performances in the early stretch of games saw sophomore Cara Bognar place third and break their season record in the 400-yard individual medley (4:18.37), and Cabush place second in the 200-yard freestyle (1:49.71).

Kale finished fourth with a season best in the 100-yard breaststroke (1:03.16), and junior Athena Salafatinos finished second in the 100-yard backstroke (54.59), another season best.

The finals for the 100-yard butterfly saw podium finishes by Olson, who finished third in the A-Final (55.05), Guerra, who finished first in the B-Final (55.75) and freshman Paloma Canos-Cervera finished third in the B-Final (56.72).

Bognar and Niziolek also set lifetime bests in the 400-yard individual medley, finishing in third for the A-Final (4:18.37) and first for the B-Final (4:29.26), respectively.

Cabush also broke the school record in the 200-yard freestyle (1:47.71), topping her own record set on Feb. 25 at the Big Ten Championships.

“It’s always fun to get a best time and know that I’m improving,” Cabush said. “The girls who came in, the underclassmen, are motivating me. … They set big goals, reminding me that I can make big goals, too.”

Junior Kaleigh Haworth and Salafatinos followed up the performance with third and second place finishes in the A-Finals for both the 100-yard breaststroke (1:03.13) and 100-yard backstroke (54.59), respectively.

The day ended with Bognar, Cabush, Bludgen and Canos-Cervera placing second in the 800-yard freestyle relay (7:26.54).

By the end of day two, Illinois had 23 new lifetime bests and 58 new season bests and were in second place.

The final day of competition started off with 13 Illini qualifying for the finals in the 200-yard backstroke, 100-yard freestyle, 200-yard breaststroke and 200-yard butterfly. 

Bognar kicked off the last set of events with a second-place finish in the 1,650-yard freestyle (17:02.63). Salafatinos also placed third in the A-Finals of the 200-yard backstroke (1:59.71), another season best.

Yetter and Cabush dominated the A-Finals of the 100-yard freestyle with second- (50.26) and third-place (50.41) finishes, respectively. Olson also secured second (2:01.57) in the A-Finals of the 200-yard butterfly, while Bognar finished in third (2:02.99).

With one more event to go and a first-place finish on the line, Olson, Yetter, Bludgen and Cabush placed first in the 400-yard freestyle relay (3:21.42), setting a new meet record for the event and securing the meet win for the Illini.

Seventy-four total lifetime bests and 171 season bests were broken throughout the three-day contest from 22 different swimmers, many of whom either broke multiple records, a single record multiple times or record split times within relays and relay lead-offs.

“The last two weeks have been a lot of confidence building,” Cabush said. “We have big goals. This team has been doing stuff that we haven’t done previously.”

Illinois won the meet with a score of 1,364. Ball State University finished in second with 1,347 and the University of Indianapolis finished third with 1,281 points.

“From the start to the finish, this was probably one of the best meets that this team has put together in my years here,” Novitsky said. “They just kept wanting to go back and get another chance and keep improving. When you get that attitude and environment, it’s great to be able to work and keep improving as a team.”

The environment will be key for the rest of the season as the Illini head into a much-deserved break after an intense fall season. 

Their next meet is Jan. 4 at the FIU Sprint Invitational in Miami, where the Illini will try and continue their momentum into the second half of their schedule, unafraid to meet those big goals.

“We’re trying to renovate the record board,” Cabush said.

 

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