LINCOLN — There's at least one event every year at the state swimming championships that makes fans stop chatting or texting, even if they have no rooting interest.
Because of what happened at state last year and how this season has unfolded, the girls 100-yard breaststroke is this year's can't-miss event.
"A lot of eyes are on this race," Ralston/Omaha Gross coach Docker Hartfield said. "I think it will be a very nice field of swimmers to watch compete. If they all swim well, we're going to see some really fast times. They could all go (1 minute, 5 seconds), because it's not very often we have a whole field that will be that close together."
From three heats for each of the 11 events during Friday's preliminaries, which begin at 9 a.m. at the Devaney Center for girls and 1:30 p.m. for boys, six swimmers will qualify for Saturday's 11 a.m. finals.
One element that makes the competition so intriguing is that four of the top six swimmers come from two teams. Sophomore YuanYuan Jiang and freshman Bryn Lohrberg are from Elkhorn/Elkhorn South, seniors Katie Ditter and Jordane Linhart from Ralston/Gross.
Occasionally there's an event where swimmers from the same school have to race each other in the finals — Ditter and Linhart did that a year ago. It would be rare to have two pairs of teammates make up two-thirds of a finals field.
"We've been pretty low-key about it," Elkhorn coach Chris Jenson said. "They've raced the top six or seven girls in the field, so they've seen what's out there firsthand. They know they need to do what works best for them and not get caught up in what someone else is trying to do."
Jiang took the season lead with a 1:07.80 in a Feb. 10 dual with Lincoln Pius X. Lohrberg led for most of the season with a 1:08.32, a time that's No. 3 on the season list behind Lincoln Southwest sophomore Sophia Nelson's 1:08.00.
Ditter (1:09.40) and Linhart (1:09.45) come to Lincoln ranked fifth and sixth, respectively. Columbus sophomore Laura Miksch is seeded fourth at 1:08.39.
There are seven other breaststrokers within 0.98 seconds of Linhart, including another pair of teammates, Omaha Skutt's Lauren Pavel and Jamie Dhabalt.
Jiang, Lohrberg, Ditter and Linhart all said a big reason they've made it to this level is because they have someone just as good as they are to practice with.
"I don't think I could be anywhere near where I am today without (Linhart)," Ditter said. "I can see my competition in practice, and that's different from a lot of the other people who don't get to see that until they get to meets."
Linhart said it took her a couple of years to understand that having Ditter in a nearby lane was a good thing.
"When I was a freshman and sophomore, I hated it because I wasn't mature enough to think of how lucky I was to have someone pushing me," Linhart said. "People think we're rivals, but we appreciate what we do for each other.
"It's like training with your own little human pace clock. I don't feel like there's any tension. I'm just really thankful there's someone close to me."
Jiang and Lohrberg also share mutual admiration.
"It's good because racing against her, you're constantly trying to prove yourself," Jiang said. "It's good, too, because we're trying to help each other get better so we can do our best at state."
As the newcomer to state competition, Lohrberg said she appreciates Jiang's advice in practice about what to expect this weekend.
"It's beneficial to have her to practice with because she definitely pushes me," Lohrberg said. "I've watched my brother and sister at state before, but I've never been in that atmosphere myself. She's helping me with that."
All four understand that the regular-season performances don't guarantee them a spot in the final. For Ditter, Linhart and Jiang, it would be a repeat trip.
"State is unlike any other meet," Jiang said. "It's a different atmosphere with the fans so into it. Hopefully I'll know what to expect because last year I was just really, really nervous."
That's where the other intriguing element/drama unfortunately becomes part of the script.
Last year's breaststroke final ended in controversy.
Ditter touched first and thought that she had won the state title. After exiting the pool, like all other gold-medal winners, Ditter was escorted to an area near the medal stand for a live television interview. Not until the other medalists were being introduced to the crowd, and she had finished the interview, did Ditter realize what happened — she was disqualified for a stroke violation.
Hartfield was unsuccessful in trying to get the head official to convene a meeting of the protest committee to hear his concerns.
What Ditter was penalized for hasn't been called on her yet this season, nor was it during the 2010-11 regular season. Hartfield is hopeful it's because there's a better understanding of the rules.
Does Ditter think people will be paying attention to the event Friday and Saturday because of one of the lowest moments of her career?
"Probably," she said. "There's a lot of pressure, both self-imposed and from other people. I have worked a lot harder to prove to everybody that I can do it. I'm not going to change anything about my stroke because of last year."
Hartfield knows that, based on what happened a year ago, Ditter's motivation is stronger than ever.
"She thinks people expect her to right the wrong," Hartfield said. "But this is a different field. Last year there were one or two close to her; there's a whole squadron this year.
"I've told her it's way more important you go into this, do your very best and have fun with the whole thing. You're in as good a position to win it as anyone in the field."
While Ditter is hoping for a time drop and a personal best, she wants to win the race. Not for anyone else, just herself.
"I feel like we did a whole bunch more breaststroke work this year, more specialization," Ditter said. "I hope it pays benefits this weekend."
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