When Preston Lau touched the wall in the prelims of his 200 freestyle, he thought he certainly would clock in at a 1:49. Sure, he was out in front of his heat, but it didn’t feel like a personal best, which at the moment was hovering around a 1:47. He still turned and looked at the board, fully expecting to see his time.
Lau raised his fist, pumping the water while shouting “Yes!” at both the board and his coaches. On the side of the pool, coaches Tracy Stauffer and Sydney Bowcott raised their arms over their heads in victory as the swimmers standing on deck went wild.
Lau’s lifetime best by two seconds, and a season best of five. It was his first race of the session in the Metro Conference meet, and would set the tone for strong swims from both boys and girls in the championships on February 11th at Millard West.
In the prelims on Friday, the Wildcat set themselves up well as far as seeding and qualifying for consolation and championship finals, getting multiple individual swimmers and relay teams into the top heat.
The pace was set early in the 200 medley relays on Saturday morning. The girls squad of Payton Hall, Kate McCoy, Sydney Hall, and Lexi Christiansen placed fifth, and the boys team of Jordan Stalheim, Andrew Feller, Matt Wanetka, and Dillon Murman took sixth.
Lau’s first individual swim of the day came in the 200 freestyle, in which he was seeded first after his lifetime best in prelims. While Lau managed to stay under 1:50 for his swim, he couldn’t ward off a furious swim from Millard North’s Trent Mischo. Lau took silver at 1:46.01, just .58 seconds behind the Mustang.
The Wildcats managed to keep momentum moving through the morning, fueled by strong IM swims from Payton Hall, Hannah Oeltjen, and McCoy, as well as Andrew Jones and Wanetka for the boys.
The ladies 50 freestyle featured one of the most surprising swimmers of the meet for the Wildcats. Elise Fricke, a sophomore who spent most of her year not even training with the varsity team, swam a 26.28 to qualify 6th in the championship finals. Even though Fricke added a few hundredths on Saturday, her presence alone in the finals was a testament to the capabilities Millard West swimming possesses.
Both teams had strong showings after the 50 break, especially in the 100 free. Hayley Addison finished 8th in the event for the girls, and Jones, Wanetka, and Colin O’Connell finished 6,7,8 in the finals.
All of those events served as a big setup to the 500 freestyles. Isabella Miceli finished 7th for the girls, but the headliner for the Wildcats came in the boys race.
Lau was seeded second in the event, behind Grayson Stanton of Papillion-LaVista.
At the horn, both stayed even for the first hundred yards or so, before Lau pulled ahead and extended his lead to almost a full body length by the midpoint. However, around lap 15, Stanton reeled in Lau, drawing even with the Wildcat, and getting about an arm’s length of a lead. As both swimmers flipped for the homestretch on the 20th lap, Lau and Stanton were neck and neck.
Both athletes thundered toward the wall, and until about the flags before the wall, there wasn’t a clear leader. Finally, as both swimmers drove home, Lau found an extra gear, and found the wall first. Only a tenth of a second separated gold and silver.
Lau said he was excited to set a personal best, but the race was memorable in a different way.
“The 4:51 was super cool because I beat my state time by a second, but I enjoyed racing Grayson Stanton more because it was literally a fight to the end,” he added.
His finals swim capped a remarkable weekend for Lau, including the blistering fast time in his 200 prelim. He’s now two seconds away from the school record in each of his individual events, the 200 and 500 freestyles.
The 500 record stands at a 4:49.10, and was set in 2014 by Andrew Spencer.
The 200 record might be a little more significant. It’s stood since the school year after Lau was born, by a swimmer named Casey Bowen, one of the fastest racers to come through Millard West. Lau’s 1:45.18 is the second fastest in Millard West history.
Given where the Wildcats were in their training, Stauffer was surprised by Lau’s times.
“From where we were at… 1:48 would have been good (in the 200),” Stauffer said. “But, there’s a thing about being confident during a race.”
For his credit, Lau didn’t think his 200 was real.
“I honestly thought the clock had stopped early. I didn’t believe the time,” he said.
For his teammates, Lau serves as an energy source which feeds the entire team to do better and swim faster.
“I was on deck (for the 500), and you could tell he looked stronger this meet,” Payton Hall said. “He wouldn’t let Grayson Stanton beat him.”
Lau’s journey through these last four years haven’t come easy. A shoulder injury his sophomore year threatened to derail him, and shortly before his senior season, Lau broke his finger. A potentially devastating injury for an athlete whose hands guide their entire stroke, it called his entire senior season into question. For his credit, Lau hasn’t let it stop him.
“Honestly… the odds felt against me. I thought I would never do as well as I have so far,” he said.
When Lau takes to the water on the 24th and 25th at state, Lau may not be just pursuing a school record. He’s seeded second overall in the 500 only to Joshua Roh of Lincoln East. Lau said he wants to go a lot faster than a school record in his events. He’s shooting for a 4:42 in the 500 and a 1:42 in the 200.
Stauffer said the hardware isn’t necessarily the biggest goal out there.
“Winning a gold medal is a great achievement, but a school record at Millard West is special,” he said.
The entire team plans to take from Lau’s example and make a statement about what the Wildcats are capable of come state time. Payton Hall is another swimmer with great potential in the 200 IM and the 100 breaststroke, who takes a lot from the example Lau sets every day.
“He works really hard,” Hall said.
She’ll take it into a meet where she has set her own sights very high.
“Well, the goal is to place top 8 in both my individual events,” she said. “I also want to drop time.”
Stauffer thinks the big key to succeed will come in getting relay teams into the top 8, especially for the girls.
“It’s all about setting it up,” he said. “We have to put the hammer down Friday. We have lots of potential.”