DUNLAP – Sports has given people lots of reasons not to smile in recent weeks. That wasn’t the case Saturday in what could have been an easily overlooked moment at a boys swim meet.
The Northern Lakes Conference swim championships have provided so many great moments of achievement, from upsets to superstars doing their thing. Often, if not always, the consolation rounds are an afterthought, as the focus is generally on the championship final and who can win the title. In the NLC, it’s also become a cultural thing to root against Northridge if you are on or supporting one of the seven other conference teams, most notably Concord. And not because the Northridge crew are bad people, but because they have become the New England Patriots in that they win EVERYTHING. It’s just easier to root for the underdog, and 20 years of dominance will do that to a psyche which is how long Northridge has reigned as kings of the conference pool.
So to see a Northridge swimmer get a standing ovation for finishing sixth place in a consolation swim, and not just from his own faithful, but from everyone in the packed Concord gallery and the pool deck, was something to see.
This wasn’t just a ‘great job’ ovation, this was recognizing an American record being set by Northridge senior Caleb Cripe. He actually set the record Thursday night in the NLC prelims, posting a 1:09.08 in the 100-meter backstroke. But, for those up on the sport, know that times that matter in the event usually are in the mid-50s, and were Saturday when Raider senior Tyler Overmyer swam a 53.57 to edge Wawasee’s Brady Robinson by one-one hundredth of a second.
Cripe’s swim on Thursday broke the American Paralympic Swimming record, which Cripe already held. Having already been a member of the U.S. Paralympic swim team in 2017 and competing in the Mexico City games, Cripe wasn’t a stranger to the big stage. When he set the mark Thursday night, Northridge’s camp knew it and let meet director Patsy Overmyer know of the occasion.
“After Thursday night’s race, it was made aware to me that he had broken the record and I was asked to announce it,” stated Overmyer. “I wasn’t sure of the classification or official name of the record he had broke and I didn’t want to make short of it. Along with a number of other responsibilities going on I decided to table it.
“On Friday after the prelims, I sat down with (Concord head coach) Tom Johnson and we decided it would be an awesome recognition. I had time to investigate his record, I checked with the officials for approval, and emailed (Northridge coach Kyle) Hembree for details about his record and told him we were going to be announcing this before his consolation swim on Saturday.”
The announcement was made, and at first, the Aquatic Center went silent, as if someone was about the be disqualified or someone’s towel had been stolen. When Cripe’s achievement was made public, the swim community came together as one, even Concord’s fans and swimmers who have a hard time excepting anything from Middlebury. Cripe, who was already on his block and ready to go, gave a wave to the fans, raised his two arms in the air, and went back to focus on his race.
A full one minute, eight seconds and 96-one-hundredths later, Cripe touched the wall for his consolation swim. He had broken his own record again, and the place went nuts.
“It’s pretty cool. And it wasn’t just about a personal best time, he slammed an American record,” Hembree said. “I was kind of on Patsy’s case about it a little bit that we should be announcing things like that. It doesn’t matter what team you are from, a kid breaks an American record, people should know about that. It’s awesome for the conference.”
Cripe, who was born with Nager’s Syndrome, affected the growth of his arms, which are shorter than most others. His handicap, however, didn’t stop him from starting swimming in 2007 and soon competing in the 2012 and 2016 Paralympic Swim Trials as well as a handful of events in the 2017 World and Can Am Championships.
“Caleb is one of the most incredible swimmers I have ever had the chance to know,” said Wawasee head coach Julie Robinson. “He’s just so motivated. There really aren’t a lot of words to describe how incredible he is.”
The meet also had a second moment, with much less fanfare, that showed the spirit swimming has fostered. One event after the backstroke, the 100-meter breaststroke, the consolations saw Wawasee’s Alex Mathew set up in the same corner as Cripe and compete. Mathew, who is hearing impaired, was given the option to use a strobe and have coach Cheryl Miller act as a physical starter as Mathew can’t hear the starting buzzer.
While Mathew didn’t have an American record go down, or any announcement of his personal record of 1:12.98, he still had several teammates approach him behind the blocks and over at the team camp. It was subtle, but notable the same.
“He doesn’t see himself as anything but anyone else,” Robinson said of Mathew. “He had a goal today to lower his time and he did it. I’m just really proud of him.”
The NLC has seen some great moments of athletes with special needs performing. In the Concord pool itself, former Minuteman Dalton Herendeen was a state finalist in the 500 free as a senior in 2011 and swam on a pair of U.S. Paralympics teams in 2012 and 2016 while missing part of his left leg. Ridge has seen greatness in Sam Grewe, who captivated the area during the 2016 Paralympics with his high jumping abilities. Warsaw’s Unified Track team has won not one, but two Team State Championships in the four years of its existence.
With all that seems to be wrong with sports in today’s society, it’s easy to latch onto the negative spaces of what’s going on at Michigan State, Olympic doping scandals, college football heroes continuing to get into trouble, or contracts that are seemingly out of control. For a few moments Saturday, none of that mattered. On that afternoon, we were given a chance to feel good.