ATWATER — During the high school swim season, Irene Duke (Los Banos High) and Elissa Martinez (Pacheco High) are opponents. During the summer club swim season, the longtime pals become teammates once again – most of the time.
“Technically, she’s still my opponent,” Martinez said. “Off the blocks? ‘Hi, Irene!’ But on the blocks? OK, I’m going to beat her.”
The teammates went 1-2 in one of the most exciting races of the weekend at Merced County Swim League Championships at Buhach Colony High School, with Duke beating Martinez in the 15-16-year-old girls 100-yard individual medley by four thousandths of a second.
“For me, it was surprising. To be honest, I thought Elissa had the race,” Duke said. “So when I pulled it out, I was like, ‘Whoa.’ But I told her from the beginning of today that it was just me and her in the IM, so we had to get first and second no matter what.”
Team-wise, the Tiger Sharks came 18 points away from taking the league title, which went to Hilmar for the third year in a row. Los Banos held the title for 18 years straight before losing to Hilmar three years ago.
“They gave everything they’ve got,” Los Banos coach Drew Guintini said. “We just needed a little more, but I can count on one hand the mistakes that were made, where if something happened different it could have easily been 18 points.
“I told them on Sunday, we’re not out of this. It’s close, it’s going to come down the the very end. So I can honestly say they shouldn’t hang their heads on the fact that they got beat again. It was a very strong performance by a very strong group of swimmers.”
The Dos Palos Dolphins placed third, not far behind Los Banos, with swimmers showing up in the finals again and again. Guintini said a second-day surge helped LB keep the Dolphins at bay, but it wasn’t enough to overtake Hilmar.
“You look at the day before’s performance and the day after, we really stepped it up a notch,” Guintini said. “I don’t know if it was our better events or if they rallied, but I could tell there was a sense of urgency. On the Hilmar side, you could tell he was kind of counting points and trying to figure out what going on. We were close.”
Four individual Tiger Sharks took high-point in their age groups – Jared Benitez won the 17-18-year-old boys group, Alex Marquez won the 15-16-year-old girls group, Brooklyn Gallagher won the 7-8-year-old girls groups and Sammy Ceja won the 6-and-under girls group.
“The one thing I was really impressed with was that sense of team pride and civic pride,” Guintini said. “We told parents that we wanted to see Los Banos parents and people watching the finals. And every time I looked across the pool, there were different age groups of kids sitting at the end of a Los Banos swimmer’s and cheering for them. I’m glad they took that to heart, because that’s a big part of the team.”
For Martinez and Duke, the team takes on a different aspect – each one’s competitiveness contributes to the other’s success, even come next spring, when one will wear red and the other purple.
“I think it’s great, because she pushes me and I push her,” Martinez said. “So we just push each other, and that makes us both better.”