Jamie Otwell won’t bring home a medal from the Illinois High School Association state swimming and diving competition this weekend.
But you could certainly make a case that the Evanston sophomore deserves a “Most Improved” award of some kind.
In her first year tackling the sport, Otwell cracked the top 16 in the State Friday at the New Trier High School pool, scoring a surprising trip to the diving semifinals before she was eliminated.
Otwell’s performance saw her surpass four other divers who had outscored her at last week’s sectional, a remarkable finish for someone who never stepped onto a diving board prior to the start of the high school season.
A gymnast by trade, she became the latest to transition from that sport and use her athleticism to thrive in the pool. Friday’s showing, with a score of 283.35 points for her 8 dives, was the highlight for the Wildkits as they failed to advance anyone to Saturday’s championship or consolation finals.
Otwell ranked 40th among the state qualifiers coming out of the sectionals last week, but climbed to the 16th spot Friday. Only the top 12 scorers advanced to Saturday’s finals. She passed 4 rivals — Riley and Bronwyn Bond of Maine South, Aliana Velick of Highland Park and Lucie Abbott of Glenbrook North — who had outscored her a week ago at the Glenbrook South Sectional qualifying meet.
“She did a great job,” praised ETHS diving coach Aaron Melnick. “She went from having zero time on a diving board at the start of the year to becoming a state (level) diver. Without question, she’s the most improved diver I’ve ever coached.
“She has a good base from gymnastics — that always helps — and she’s used to being coached. When you tell her she needs to tweak something, she’s always trying to find a way to fix the details. That’s a major strength for Jamie.
“Coming into the year with no diving base like she did, I really look at Jamie as a freshman. We realized after awhile that she was really good at pike dives, and that helped increase her degree of difficulty. All the dives she threw today are dives that she’s hit before, so I really wasn’t surprised she made it to the semifinals. Today she just didn’t make some of the mistakes she usually makes.”
Otwell ranked as Evanston’s No. 1 varsity gymnast as a freshman and was a sectional qualifier in that sport last year. She plans to report to practice at ETHS on Monday, too. But after competing in gymnastics since she was 2 years old, she decided to dial things back in that sport and stopped training over the summer.
That’s when her mother, Nancy, made a suggestion that may have changed the course of her daughter‘s athletic success.
“I quit club gymnastics in the summer because I really didn’t enjoy it as much as I used to,” Otwell said. “And my Mom was a diver and a gymnast when she was in high school (in Michigan), and she said hey, why not try diving?
“I tried a diving class at Glenbrook South and came out of there with tons of bruises on my legs. I didn’t really enjoy that much. But I still saw it as an opportunity to try another sport in the fall, and that’s something I really wanted to do.”
Otwell’s success in the pool didn’t come overnight. It took Melnick’s patience to help her develop into a future state contender.
“We went really slow and took it one step at a time. I learned the basics and I wanted to keep learning more,” said the ETHS sophomore. “Everything we did, they were things I knew that I could do, and that helped me to not be afraid. And I’d pick landing in the water over landing on the ground any day!
“My aha moment? It happened today. Today my goal was not to be last — and in my head my goal was to make that first cut. I’m really happy with the way it turned out and I’m really proud of myself. The first couple of dives helped me relax and feel comfortable. I didn’t have as much anxiety after that.”
Melnick made sure Otwell’s diving list included the most difficult attempts in her first 5 mandatory dives, and that strategy paid off. She piled up 74.65 points on her first two dives — a back somersault full twist and a back one and one-half somersault pike — and carried that momentum over to the semifinals.
Evanston’s swimmers weren’t able to keep up the momentum they achieved at the sectional in a sport where sometimes tapers don’t last beyond the first week. Senior Clio Hancock fell short in her bids to advance in both the 200-yard individual medley relay and 100 butterfly, and the Wildkits couldn’t match the sectional times they posted when they tried again Friday in both the 200 and 400 freestyle relay races.
Hancock, one week after setting the school record at 2 minutes, 4.96 seconds, settled for a 2:07.45 clocking in the IM that tied for 15th fastest overall. In the butterfly, she ranked 32nd among the qualifiers, at 58.08, half a second slower than her sectional performance.
“It’s not just the taper, it’s also the emotion of the state meet,” pointed out ETHS head coach Kevin Auger. “We wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t tapered the way we did. It’s really tense here and most of our girls have never seen this meet before. When your goal is to make it to State, it’s a huge goal. But what do you do then? We did place higher today than we were seeded in every case.
“The only race I was disappointed in today was the IM, where Clio got out too fast. I think she got a little anxious when she got to the breaststroke, because she took more strokes than usual and her turns were not as good. And in the butterfly she didn’t get out fast enough.”
Sophomore Lane Raedle chalked up a lifetime best split of 24.94 leading off the 200 relay, teaming with Erin Long, Katy Donati and Leah Friedman for a time of 1:39.37 that ranked 28th among the contenders.
The foursome of Hancock, Donati, Mackenzie Tucker and Long teamed up for a 3:36.95 effort in the 400 freestyle relay, 24th overall.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.