Ackerman claims two state titles at Division 1 state meet

Duncan MacLean • Nov 19, 2018 at 12:59 AM

There aren't many mountains left to climb in high school swimming for Grand Haven's Kathryn Ackerman after another stellar weekend at the Division 1 state championships.

The junior speedster captured two state titles at Eastern Michigan University on Saturday, along with two state records, an EMU pool record and, including her relay efforts, four Grand Haven varsity records.

A repeat crown in the 200-yard individual medley and a gutsy win in a competitive field in the 100 butterfly race earned Ackerman the lion's share of the Bucs' total points, leading them to a 10th-place finish overall.

As for her relay efforts, Ackerman posted the fastest breaststroke split in the field to bolster stellar times by Mary Violet Springer, Annah Taylor and Ocean Veldhouse to a seventh-place finish in the 200 medley relay.

In the 400 freestyle relay, Ackerman's anchor split was bested by just one other swimmer, as she reeled in the final heat to secure a sixth-place finish for Veldhouse, Springer and Alonna Clark.

The four top-eight finishes, plus a 14th-place effort by the 200 freestyle relay team of Springer, Taylor, Clark and Veldhouse, gathered 96 points for Grand Haven, continuing their upward trend over the last four years. Two O-K Red Conference teams came in ahead of the Bucs, as Hudsonville took ninth at 105 points and Rockford fourth at 191.

Ackerman's 200 IM time of 1:57.25 and her 100 butterfly time of 54.42 seconds earned the junior her sixth and seventh All-American honors and broke a slew of records along the way, making it an impressive meet all around for the Grand Haven standout.

"For the team, we were really hoping for top 10 overall, so we were thrilled to finish 10th," Ackerman said of the weekend. "In my individuals, I knew 1:57 was a really fast time from last year, so I was just hoping to be somewhere near it. In the 100 fly, that was one of my most exciting races this year."

After positioning herself well at prelims, nabbing the No. 1 seed in the 200 IM and No. 2 in the butterfly, Ackerman kicked finals off with a bang, setting herself up for a stellar session.

The Bucs' 200 medley team had secured the seventh seed with a time of 1:46.97 during Friday's prelims, as Ackerman split a 28.29 for the breaststroke leg. While it was the fastest in the field, it wasn't fast enough for her.

"One thing I was really focused on going into finals was beating my times from prelims," she said. "To go 28.15 in the relay finals, I knew I was in good shape to have a couple of good races."

At finals, her split was again the fastest in the field. Combined with Springer's 27.31 backstroke leg, Taylor's 24.60 butterfly leg and Veldhouse's 24.60 freestyle leg added up to a varsity-record breaking time of 1:46.40 and seventh place in the opening event of the session.

That breath of confidence grew to a wind with a dominant performance in the 200 IM. At the 2017 championship meet, Ackerman took top-honors to claim her first MHSAA gold medal, breaking All-Class, Division 1 and the Oakland University pool records in the process.

After picking up the top seed by just under five seconds at the 2018 prelims, it was clear Ackerman meant to run away with the event once again.

"I was pretty confident going into the meet," she said. "I knew it probably wasn't going to be a very close race, so I focused on beating my time. That is one of my biggest motivators. I worked all season to beat that time from last year."

A year's worth of focus paid off in 0.67 of a second, as Ackerman turned in a 1:57.25 to break her own All-Class and Division 1 state records, as well as the Grand Haven varsity record and the Eastern Michigan pool record. While she was the fastest in history by just a hair, she was the quickest in the heat by nearly seven seconds.

Pool records at high school competitions are one thing, but setting a new fastest standard at a collegiate natatorium is quite another, a fact not wasted on Ackerman.

"Last year, it was a bonus. I didn't even realize I had broken it," she said of Oakland's 200 IM standard. "This year, I was just warming up and saw it was 1:59 and thought, ‘Hey, I can get that.'

"It is really cool. They are something I sometimes overlook. I have most of the pool records at Grand Haven, so to do it at a pool like Eastern is really special."

After torching the field in her now signature event, Ackerman turned her attention to the 100 butterfly, where a longtime friend and rival posed more than a challenge.

A year ago, as Ackerman swept the 200 IM record board, Rockford's Morgan Kraus did the same in the 100 butterfly, wrapping up a campaign that landed her a spot on Ohio State University's roster for next season.

Ackerman's choice of the second event put the future Michigan Wolverine on a crash course with the defending champ, making for an electric race for the gold.

"It was either going to be the butterfly or the backstroke," Ackerman said. "I knew either race would be really close. Casey Chung is the defending champ in the backstroke and was back again and is a really good swimmer.

"I have felt more confident in my fly all season and even this past summer, so I went with the fly."

The choice came with some game planning.

"I talked to (coach) Doug (Thorne), right before the race, and we knew Morgan had really good underwater and always has a strong second 50 (yards)," Ackerman said. "So, he told me to breathe a lot on the first 50 and then use my legs to bring it home and use whatever I had left at the end."

Fifty yards into the race, Thorne's wisdom held true. Kraus held a 0.31 second lead over Ackerman, who sat a shade ahead of the rest of a motivated heat.

The extra oxygen early paid off, as Ackerman found another gear for the back half to snag a narrow 0.10-second victory over Krauss as the two pulled away from the field.

"I was just focused on my tempo and using my legs," Ackerman said. "I could tell Morgan was just a little bit ahead of me coming into the end, so I used everything I had from the flags in."

Despite doubling down on the Bucs-Rams and Buckeye-Wolverine rivalry, the two fierce competitors share a special bond, making the victory emotional for the younger Ackerman.

"She is awesome. She has been one of my good friends since I was young," Ackerman said of Kraus. "So, it was fun to beat her, but it was bittersweet. It was her last state meet, so it was fun for me to win, but I knew it was tough for her. So, you have to do it with grace."

The win in the butterfly set up a fun finish in the 400 freestyle relay, as Ackerman linked back up with her fellow Bucs for one last ride.

The 400 foursome narrowly made the championship heat with a prelim time of 3:31.73, besting that to move up to sixth on Saturday.

Veldhouse led off the effort in 53.90, followed by Springer at 53.38 and Clark at 53.98. Heading into Ackerman's final leg, the Bucs held eighth place nearly two seconds behind Rockford and three behind Ann Arbor Pioneer. That was no problem for Grand Haven's anchor, as she ripped off a 49.14 to haul into sixth place and secure yet another Grand Haven varsity record.

"That relay is one of my favorite races," she said of the 400 free relay. "It is so fun. It isn't just a 50, so you get more of a race out of it. It is easier when I'm behind, it is a chance to get a good race, a chance to dive in and see who I can chase down."

All four of Ackerman's Saturday swims clocked in faster than her prelim tries, something much easier said than done both mentally and physically. While the electric atmosphere of the finals can throw off some swimmers, it is only fuel for Ackerman.

"The big thing is just the atmosphere," she said. "It changes everything and just makes you swim faster. In the warm-up, I felt about the same Saturday as I did Friday, but the competition and the crowd and the walkouts just add another level."

The Bucs' 200 freestyle relay also made an appearance at Saturday's finals without the help of Ackerman, making the most of the hyped-up finals atmosphere to drop nearly a half a second off their time from Friday.

Springer led things off with a split of 24.30, followed by Taylor at 24.36, Clark at 24.25 and Veldhouse at 24.25. Their total time of 1:38.02 was good for 14th place overall.

With the state meet in the books, Ackerman is right back at it. She will return to training with Michigan Lakeshore Aquatics this afternoon to prepare for the 2018 Winter Junior Nationals at the Greensboro Aquatic Center in Greensboro, North Carolina on Dec. 5-8.

Following the national meet, Ackerman says she will take a little break to celebrate yet another phenomenal season.

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