Sterling’s Keaton Dir and Newman’s Warren Melton consider themselves the best of friends … well, most of the time, anyway.
But when the two senior swimmers find themselves in adjacent lanes in the pool, the friends turn into friendly rivals.
“When it comes to meets, we’ll tell each other that we’re not friends right then, but rivals instead,” Dir said. “But it’s always a friendly competition, even when we’re giving each other crap, and it’s always right back to being buddies after the race.”
The two have been swimming together for years, starting in the Sterling Stingrays swim club, where they both still compete to this day. The past 4 years, they’ve seen quite a bit of each other during the high school season as well, since the Golden Warriors and Comets often frequent the same meets.
The duo swam the same events most of this season, with several 1-2 finishes in the 100 butterfly and 200 freestyle between them. This weekend, they take their friendship to the ultimate level: the IHSA state swimming and diving meet, held at Evanston High School today and Saturday.
Both beat the state cut in the 200 freestyle at last weekend’s Rock Island Sectional, and Dir added a victory in the 100 butterfly to punch his state ticket again. After a week of preparation, they’re ready to take their act on the road for the best career finale either of them could imagine.
“We’re actually in the same heat in Friday’s state prelims, too,” Dir said with a laugh, “so it’s the perfect way to finish off the rivalry.”
“We’re always right there next to one another, pushing each other to go faster and making sure we’re swimming our best,” Melton added, “and it’s really cool that it will be the same way one last time at state.”
Dir’s teammate Cade Coursey will also compete in Evanston, as the junior won the sectional diving title for the second straight season.
Both swimmers plan on swimming somewhere in college next year, and have already left their mark at their high school. Melton is near the top of the list in almost every event for the Comets, and holds school records in the 100 fly (53.29 seconds), 200 free (1:43.44) and 500 free (5:03).
Dir will also have his name stenciled onto the Sterling record board at the Duis Center after the season, as he set two new school marks at this past weekend’s Rock Island Sectional. His time of 1:43.87 in the 200 free broke James Wike’s 13-year-old record of 1:45.04, and his time of 52.85 seconds in the 100 fly topped Steve Yemm’s 7-year-old mark of 54.00.
“I don’t know if that will sink in until my name’s actually up there on the board,” Dir said. “As a freshman, one of my goals was to get my name on there, and I actually did it twice. It’s unreal.”
While Dir feels is big-meet experience in club swimming will have him ready to go this afternoon, Melton and Coursey have state experience to fall back on.
Melton qualified for state last year in the 200 free, placing 26th in 1:44.04; the top six times in prelims earn spots in Saturday’s finals, with the next six qualifying for the consolation finals. He’s seeded 19th heading into the race this year after his 1:43.33 at the sectional, three spots ahead of Dir.
“My experience last year makes me realize I have to put everything I have into Friday,” Melton said, “because there’s no reason to hold anything back. Saturday is the only thing I have left to shoot for as a representative of Newman.
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot all year, and the more I think about it, the more excited I get. Last year, I was excited just to make it down there, and it’s progressed this year to being more and more excited for the opportunity to be on that stage again … and perform even better.”
Coursey knows exactly how Melton feels. As a sophomore last year, he was thrilled – and somewhat awestruck – to win the sectional title.
The eyes only got wider when he reached the suburbs and saw what he was up against.
“It wasn’t what I thought at all; it was so much bigger, with a lot more people than I expected,” Coursey said. “I’m really happy I got that experience for this year and next year, because my mindset is definitely different now that I know what it’s all about. I won’t be as nervous, and it will me help me focus on my dives.”
Coursey finished 43rd in prelims a year ago with a 137.90, and it’s only fueled his fire to improve his standing this season. He’s seeded 28th with his dive of 405.20 – only 11.80 points off Matthew Whittaker’s 2004 school record of 417 – but has his eyes set much higher this weekend.
“That’s just a number, and it doesn’t mean anything to me,” Coursey said of his seeding. “I’m going to dive how I can, do what I do, and hopefully move up and surprise some people.
“My goal was originally a top-16 finish, but I’ve been diving a lot better right now than I thought I was able to, so now I’m hoping for top 12 – which is the finals and a medal.”
Saturday is the ultimate goal for Melton and Dir, as well. Melton received some motivation this week from former Byron co-op standout and Dixon native Aaron Helander, who texted the Newman senior that he expected to see his name among the finalists after Friday’s prelims.
Melton said he’d be “thrilled” to make that happen, and said his best buddy’s presence will only help. He recalls a meet at Rockford Jefferson earlier this year, when every other competitor was quietly off in their own world while focusing for a race, and he and Dir were joking around a little behind the starting blocks.
“It doesn’t have to be serious all the time; it actually helps to be a little relaxed,” Melton said. “Having your best friend there with you makes it easier to stay loosened up and having fun.”
Dir considers that an important part of his success, as well, and can’t imagine any other place he’d rather be – or anyone he’d rather be there with – than swimming with Melton on Saturday in Evanston.
“It actually helps to stay focused when you’re a little loose,” Dir said, “because it keeps you from getting psyched out too much. It would be pretty cool if we both came back and swam Saturday, because it would make the experience one neither of us would ever forget.”
Event: 1-meter diving
Other sports: Soccer, track
FYI: Has back-to-back sectional titles, and placed 43rd at state last year (137.90).
Events: 200 freestyle, 100 butterfly
Other sports: Cross country, track
FYI: Holds school records in 200 free (1:43.87) & 100 fly (52.85).
Event: 200 freestyle
FYI: Holds school records in 200 free (1:43.44), 100 fly (53.29) & 500 free (5:03). … Placed 26th at state last year in 200 free (1:44.04).