WINNETKA – Dixon senior Aaron Helander might not have been completely satisfied with the final race of his high-school career. But the Byron co-op swimmer was thrilled with the site of that final race – and the chance to witness history.
Helander placed 11th in the 100-yard butterfly at the state swimming and diving meet Saturday at New Trier High School. His time of 50.71 seconds fell short of his school-record 50.49 in Friday's preliminaries, but he had no complaints after posing for photos with his fellow finalists.
"It felt good, even though it wasn't the time I wanted," Helander said. "Getting that one last swim on the last day of the season, in this whole amazing atmosphere … I wouldn't want to be anywhere else on my last day as a high-school swimmer.
"I was just trying to stay relaxed – I swim well when I'm relaxed – but I was picking up a lot of energy from the crowd, and that helped push me to finish strong."
Helander was still dripping wet from his consolation final heat when the second part of that amazing experience kicked in. Watching the championship final heat with his fellow competitors, Helander and the rest of the crowd in the packed natatorium saw the best 100 butterfly swim in the country.
Mundelein senior Connor Black, who broke state records in the 100 fly (47.20 seconds) and 50 freestyle (19.80) during Friday's prelims, topped himself in the final. Already with the 50 free title (19.95) under his proverbial belt, the Stanford-bound swimmer shattered his own 1-day-old record in the 100 fly. His 46.71 was 49-hundredths of a second faster than his prelim time, and it also set a new national high school record.
"It's completely unreal," Helander said, shaking his head. "I've been swimming at the same meets as him since we were 12 years old, and to be here to see him swim that time … it's insane."
Black beat two-time defending 100 fly state champion Andrew Jovanovic of Loyola Academy by 1.4 seconds, capping a back-and-forth season for the two friendly rivals from the suburbs. Jovanovic, who would later claim the state crown in the 100 backstroke (48.25), was effusive in his praise for Black, saying the new national record-holder would've accomplished the feat even without the rest of the field there to push him during the race.
The matter-of-fact Black wasn't having any of it from the Northwestern recruit.
"Having him there, not just today but all season, was definitely important," Black said. "I saw him at every turn today, then when I came up the last time, he was still under. That's when I put my head down and kept it there all the way to the wall.
"I knew I could do it, so I'm not really surprised. I'm just really glad I did it on this stage, against a guy who is the best in the state in this race."
The record had belonged to Matt Grevers – the Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter backstroke this past summer in London – who swam for Lake Forest a decade ago. The 100 fly was the last of Grevers' three state records to fall.
After the standard post-race cheers, a brief stunned silence descended on the pool area as the time was officially posted. Then, another eruption of screaming and shouting as the announcement of the national record was made.
Newman junior Warren Melton, who stuck around for Saturday's finals after placing 26th in the 200 freestyle during Friday's prelims, was just one of the many awestruck competitors, coaches, officials and fans.
"That was just really awesome," Melton said with a smile so wide you'd have thought he accomplished the feat himself. "This is definitely the most fun I've had at a meet in a while, hanging out with the Byron and Sterling guys and [teammate] Alex DeForest. I'm soaking it all in, and it's where I'd like to be next year.
"I feel like this is where the magic is, and if I could take that next step next year and earn a shot at the top 12 or top 6, that would be amazing."
Byron's other competitor, senior Jackson Halsmer, swam in two finals Saturday. He placed fourth in the championship heat of the 50 free (20.82 seconds), and followed Helander's swim with a win in the consolation heat of the 100 free (45.56). Both times were personal bests and school records, and both finishes were one-spot improvements from his seeds coming out of Friday's prelims.
It was sweet vindication for the University of Iowa-bound Halsmer, who just missed the finals of the 50 free by 2-hundredths of a second last year; he added a 20th in the 100 free prelims to the 13th in the 50 in 2012.
"I'm just thrilled," Halsmer said. "Almost making it to finals last year really pushed me to work a lot harder, and it's all paying off today.
"The second day [at state] is where I've wanted to be all year, and to have two personal bests and two school records, it's the best case scenario. I'm really happy with that, and I definitely couldn't have asked for a better way to end my high-school career."
Byron's state finalists
• Aaron Helander, senior (Dixon) – 11th in 100 butterfly (50.71 seconds)
• Jackson Halsmer, senior – 4th in 50 freestyle (20.82), 7th in 100 freestyle (45.56)