The 38-person Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart swimming and diving team has earned some notoriety in the past three years, not just in the Washington, D.C. area but nationwide. That’s what happens when one of the members wins an Olympic gold medal and sets multiple world records.
It’s no coincidence that the arrival of junior Katie Ledecky in 2011-12 has coincided with the Gators’ recent resurgence — last winter Stone Ridge won its first Independent School League title since 2003, knocking off the champion eight of the previous 10 years, crosstown rival Holton-Arms. But even arguably the world’s best distance freestyler can’t win a high school championship meet without any help.
That concept has helped unite the team, which seniors Lily Gasaway and Villanova University recruit Laura Garcia agreed is more spirited than ever. According to the school’s website there are 315 students enrolled in grades nine through 12, a fairly small talent pool to draw from but within that, the Gators have built a solid core of competitive year-round swimmers. Swimming is a demanding sport that takes a certain kind of investment, coach Robert Walker said. Stone Ridge, he added, is fortunate enough to boast the type of student-athletes willing to put in the time to hone their craft.
“I definitely feel like people know it’s a whole team effort,” Gasaway said. “Katie is far and away the best swimmer we have but she is not the only good swimmer.”
Stone Ridge scored 235 points in last year’s fourth-place finish at the Washington Metropolitan Interscholastic Swimming and Diving championships, its best performance in a decade. A meet-high 48 of them — 20 percent of the team’s total — were earned by Ledecky, who won both her individual events in meet-record fashion. She also teamed with current sophomore Kelleigh Haley, Gasaway and former standout breaststroker Natalie Kronfli to win the 200-yard freestyle relay.
The remaining 187 were a compilation of top 15 performances made by Garcia, who finished fourth in the 100-yard butterfly, Gasaway, Kronfli and sophomore Kelleigh Haley. Ledecky certainly adds a unique component, Walker said, and Garcia and Gasaway agreed the Gators are motivated to work even harder to rally around her.
“If you’re on a relay with Katie, you’re not just letting yourself down or your family down, you’re letting Katie down and I mean that in a good way,” Walker said. “You don’t want to be the weak link. I think they don’t even think about it as being on a relay with [an Olympic gold medalist] I think they just get up on the blocks and don’t want to be the slow one.”
Stone Ridge’s ascent back into the area’s upper echelon started in 2010-11 with its fourth-place finish at ISL’s. A top three team at Metros in the early 2000s, the Gators had finished 2009 and 2010 in ninth place in the 12-team league and scored just two points in 31st- and 33rd-place performances at Metros. In 2012 Stone Ridge finished second at ISLs and tied for 10th at Metros, paving the way for last year’s results.
The Gators, lost their ISL title to the champion nine of the past 11 years, Holton-Arms, and have their work cut out for them if they’re going to repeat last winter’s success at this weekend’s Washington Metropolitan Prep Schools Swimming and Diving Championships and Metros Feb. 8. Kronfli’s graduation has left a hole in the breaststroke and 200-yard medley relay. But Stone Ridge’s recent runner-up finish doesn’t necessarily mean the Gators are out of contention to remain the highest private school finisher at Metros. Walker is still fine tuning his lineup combinations, he said. Strong freestyle relays will likely be the cornerstone to Stone Ridge’s postseason success. The addition of freshman Megan Fennell to sophomore Lexi Catalano on the diving contingent should be good for a few extra points during championship season as well. The points are there, Walker said, it’s just a matter of figuring out where to put them.
Not many high school athletes get to say they’re teammates with an Olympic gold medalist and that’s not something Stone Ridge takes for granted, Garcia and Gasaway said. But the Gators are also a bunch of friends and teammates working toward a common goal, leaving their mark on the resurgent program.
“We spent my first three years trying to get to this level, now the more difficult task is staying there,” Gasaway said. “We’re coming from a different place, it’s almost more [nerve-wracking] when you have all these expectations put on you but we want to maintain our high level.”