Coming off the best state meet in Riverside Brookfield High School girls swimming history in 2022, junior Hailey Vlcek still had doubts preparing for this postseason.
She continued working hard and maintaining focus toward the raised bar of expectations. But with added school work and missing meets for college recruiting visits, her race times didn’t always seem to show that.
“I just felt like I wasn’t swimming my fastest throughout the season and I was looking back at how I was doing last year and reflecting, so that kind of worried me,” Vlcek said.
“I kept telling [RBHS coach Mike Laurich] and he was like, ‘No, no, no. You’re going to be fine. Once you put on a [speed] suit and get tapered, you’re going to be fine.’”
When Vlcek returned to the state finals Saturday, there truly were no worries. She simply achieved another unprecedented level of success, finishing third in the 200-yard freestyle (1:51.05) and 14th in the 100 free (51.75) at the FMC Natatorium in Westmont.
“I’m really happy with how I did, and it was just really cool seeing all of the hard work I put into the season had this outcome,” she said.
With more school-record times and even lifetime bests, including club season, Vlcek reached both of her place goals and improved her highest girls swimming state finish.
In 2022, Vlcek was fourth at state in the 200 free (1:52.30) to become the Bulldogs’ first top-six all-state girls swimmer. At sectionals, Nov. 4, her 51.82 for the 100 free was the state’s 16th fastest and only the top 16 times from Friday’s preliminaries advanced to Saturday’s finals.
“I was really happy being able to get both of my goals, getting top 3 and top 16. And I think honestly having the support around me [helped],” Vlcek said. “All over the pool deck I had friends [from other schools] in like every heat and being able to cheer them on, getting to have the support from other teams and all of the athletes on the deck, even in the stands. It’s just been really cool to have the support and energy.”
This was the first year that the top 16 times Friday advanced to Saturday’s finals instead of 12. The top eight times competed for the state title.
In the 200 free on Friday, Vlcek again broke her school record with a lifetime-best 1:50.50, the third-fastest finals qualifying time. In the 100 free on Friday, her lifetime-best 51.75 earned the No. 14 qualifying spot.
“You always want a little bit more, but she did a great job. I’m very proud of her,” Laurich said.
“With juniors being recruited [by colleges], that’s a whole different scenario that she’s never head to deal with. She missed a couple of meets that were important, but she did the work. I thought we were in a good place. It was just convincing her to believe we were in a good place.”
“He’s definitely been helpful through the entire season just keeping me motivated, always being there for me, [saying], ‘You’re going to be fine,’” Vlcek said.
As the Bulldogs’ only state qualifier, Vlcek had RBHS girls and boys there for support and other swimmers she knows from club competition. She sat with Lyons Township qualifiers Friday and state champion Rosary on Saturday.
Vlcek had two other factors in her favor — state experience and a great sectional. Both qualifying times were then school records (1:51.18 and 51.82).
“I think that, going into sectionals and state, [it helped] getting into a mindset like, ‘OK. This is it. We get to go and race now,’” she said. “Sectionals was definitely a big help. Just having the experience of the last two years, to know what’s going to happen, know what to expect going into the state meet, no surprises.”
Last season, she was 17th at state in the 500 free (5:08.60) but switched back this season to the 100 free, where she was 20th in 2021 (52.59) as well as 13th in the 200 free in a then-school record 1:52.71.
Vlcek was happy Saturday to see her club teammate, Rosary junior Becky Rentz, win the 200 free (1:47.47). Reaching the 100 free finals truly was an accomplishment. Last year’s winning time of 50.42 would have tied for fourth Saturday.
“The 100 free was really fast this year,” Vlcek said.
She painted her fingernails light blue in honor of the Bulldogs with a lightning bolt. She wore a new black speed suit with gold trim to bead water better and cut time.
“I wanted to wear a new suit. I was hoping to wear a colored suit, but it was just whatever I had at my house,” she said. “Next year, I’ll try to go with the colored suit. I think it’s more fun.”