Going into the Section 8A girls swimming and diving meet at Bemidji on Oct. 24, the Park Rapids trio of senior Ellie Ulvin, senior Aleah Voigt and sophomore Emma Vrieze were focused on having fun.

There was no pressure to qualify for a trip to the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center since the Minnesota State High School League decided not to hold a state Class A meet this year because of COVID-19 concerns.

While all three swimmers were looking to clock their best times of the season, enjoying their final competitive meet against their section opponents was the top priority.

“I wanted us to swim together. I wanted us to support each other and be present through the whole meet. I was excited to see just how fast we were going to be. And boy was I excited with how we swam. The girls dropped so much time and were positive through the whole meet,” said Ulvin. “We all tried to go in with the mindset that we were there to swim fast and have fun doing it. It helped take the nerves off for everyone.”

“My goals going into my final section meet were to simply have fun and to be a positive role model,” said Voigt. “I wanted the girls to know that they all worked so hard all season and it will pay off here.”

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“One of my goals was to have a successful and fun meet,” said Vrieze. “I knew I just wanted to drop some time and have fun with my team.”

The Panthers competed against Bemidji, Grand Rapids and Fosston/Bagley at one site. Fergus Falls and Perham/New York Mills competed at Detroit Lakes while Warroad hosted Crookston and Thief River Falls. Not only did all three Park Rapids swimmers enjoy competing at Bemidji, all three delivered by combining for one winning time and four runner-up finishes after the results from all three meets were tabulated.

Ulvin repeated as the Section 8A champion in the 50-yard freestyle with a time of 25.02 and was the runner-up in the 100 freestyle in 55.24. Voigt clocked a pair of runner-up times with a 2:19.91 in the 200 individual medley and a 1:04.76 in the 100 backstroke. Vrieze took second in the 500 freestyle with a 5:39.68. All five times were season bests.

Those finishes would have resulted in the three Park Rapids swimmers competing at state in five events. Unfortunately, all three won’t get the opportunity to swim at state.

Ulvin defends title

After qualifying for her second state meet as a junior last season, Ulvin was looking forward to capping off her senior season with another trip to the University of Minnesota.

That goal changed with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I wish we could’ve gotten a more normal season. I wish we had the answers we wanted when we first started. But we learned something from this. We found a way to keep working hard every day not knowing if we would have a section meet or not,” said Ulvin. “We found a way to be a family and support each other even though we were split up. I was happy we got to swim. We got to be with our team again and to do something we love. I got to swim with my family one last time.”

Ulvin earned her first trip to state as a sophomore with a runner-up finish in the 50 freestyle at the section meet. Ulvin finished 20th in her state debut with a time of 24.94.

Last season, Ulvin advanced to state in two events after winning section titles in the 50 freestyle (in 24.76) and the 100 freestyle (in 55.15). Ulvin placed 20th in the 50 freestyle in 25.37 and 21st in the 100 freestyle in 55.27 in her second state appearance.

This year’s section meet was different with finals only and no preliminaries. In her final section meet, Ulvin focused on swimming her best in hopes of repeating as the section champ in both events.

“I was going in with a fresh start. This year was new for everyone, I wasn’t going to count anyone out of any race. I knew I needed to work hard to keep swimming fast,” said Ulvin, who entered the section meet as the No. 2 seed in the 50 freestyle and the No. 3 seed in the 100 freestyle. “It was pretty nerve wracking to sit down and think about it. There were no second chances this time around. You got in and did your best.”

Ulvin did her best, improving on her seed time of 25.74 with a 25.02 to repeat as the section champ in the 50 freestyle ahead of the 25.22 by Grand Rapids’ Elsa Viren and clocking a 55.24 in the 100 freestyle to improve on her seed time of 56.49. Grand Rapids’ Hannah Rauzi won the section title with a 55.15.

“I was excited to see how I and the girls would perform. I was happy that we were at sections one last time with our entire section team,” said Ulvin. “I just kept thinking: ‘This is it. Let’s get in and swim lights out’.”

While it was satisfying to get the chance to swim at the section meet, Ulvin was disappointed not having the chance to compete in her third state meet and that her teammates missed out on a trip to the University of Minnesota.

“I have made it to state two times so far and qualified this year. I would have loved to go another year and be down there one last time, but it wasn’t in the cards,” said Ulvin. “I am more disappointed that the other girls didn’t get to go this year. This would have been Emma’s first year swimming the 500 freestyle so she would have had a whole different experience than last year. Aleah worked hard last year and she put in the work again this year and made it in the 200 IM and 100 backstroke. She would’ve gotten an experience that she deserved and has worked so hard to achieve. I wish we would’ve had the chance to go down there together and finish off the season like we deserved.”

Voigt delivers in finale

After missing out on qualifying for state in two events last season, Voigt was looking forward to capping off her senior season by earning a trip to state this fall

That goal changed when COVID-19 put the season in jeopardy.

“Not knowing if I would even get a senior swim season was very scary for me. I stayed positive through it and took every opportunity I had to swim. Once I heard that we get a section meet was when it really hit me that this is it; it was my last chance to do what I love,” said Voigt. “I absolutely love my team. Every single girl on the team is a little sister to me. I am not only satisfied with how well I did this season, I am the most satisfied by the way this team took this obstacle during our season and we pushed through it and we came out stronger and closer than any team I’ve ever been a part of.”

At last year’s section meet, Voigt just missed qualifying for state by placing third in the 200 individual medley in 2:20.66 and fourth in the 100 backstroke in 1:03.29.

Voigt entered her final section meet as the No. 4 seed in the 200 IM and the No. 2 seed in the 100 backstroke. The Park Rapids senior contended for both titles, dropping her seed time of 2:26.14 to 2:19.91 to finish second in the 200 IM and dropping her seed time of 1:06.09 to 1:04.76 to finish second in the 100 backstroke. Fergus Falls’ Emilie Carlson won the section title in the 200 IM in 2:18.01 and Grand Rapids’ Sophie Verke claimed the section title in the 100 backstroke in 1:02.13.

“If I am being completely honest, I didn’t look at times or places at all going into this meet. I had no idea where I would end up. All I knew was I worked the hardest I could all season and it would pay off at some point. Knowing that that was my only chance made me want to swim even harder and I think that it helped me to my advantage not having a second day to psych myself out,” said Voigt about not having preliminary heats. “My mindset was pretty good going into the meet. My least worry was going to state. I didn’t worry about what place I would get. I knew I worked hard this whole season and the place I get would show how hard I worked. But I knew my mindset would spread to the rest of my team, so I took this as a challenge and I made sure everyone had a good mindset throughout the whole meet. The team did an awesome job with being positive the whole way through the meet and we all had a great time encouraging each other.”

Even though not being able to compete for the first time at a state meet was disappointing, Voigt was pleased with how her senior season went.

“I am pretty bummed out that I don’t get the state experience and I wish I could experience it, but it is what it is,” said Voigt. “I am satisfied with the way I ended my high school swimming career and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the love and support from my coaches and teammates. They pushed me to the next level every day and never stopped encouraging me. They are the reason I love this sport.”

Vrieze accepts challenge

Vrieze accepted a challenge going into this year’s section meet.

Last season, Vrieze earned her first state trip by placing second in the 100 freestyle in 56.14 while finishing sixth in the 50 freestyle in 25.76. Vrieze placed 21st in her state debut with a 55.91 in the 100 freestyle.

Entering this year’s section meet, Vrieze decided to switch from competing in the sprint freestyle races to swimming in the 200 freestyle and 500 freestyle.

“It was a trial thing this year,” said Vrieze. “Coach and I both thought it would be cool to try something new and give longer races a shot.”

That move paid off.

After placing fifth in the 200 freestyle in 2:05.75, Vrieze clocked a 5:39.68 to finish second in the 500 freestyle. Vrieze entered the section meet as the No. 2 seed in that event with a time of 5:46.25. Kaitlyn Peterson of Detroit Lakes took first in 5:29.34.

Vrieze wasn’t too concerned about not having a preliminary race to prepare for the finals.

“There was a little bit of pressure, but it also gave me the mindset to get up and go right away,” said Vrieze. “I knew there was a chance to qualify in the 500. I just knew I had to swim fast and win my heat.”

Even though Vrieze won’t get the opportunity to compete at state this year, she’s thankful she will have two more years to achieve that goal.

“I’m very thankful for the season we had. It was a learning experience that made our team closer and let us learn new things about our training. But I’m also bummed out. I knew that I wouldn’t get another trip down to state with anyone who is a senior,” said Vrieze. “It’s pretty disappointing. It’s something I worked hard for, so it definitely is a bummer we won’t be going down to the U of M to swim this season. Next fall I’m hoping to keep the momentum I have and that the team has. I’m very excited and looking forward to our next section meet already. I’m planning to work hard and swim fast next season.”