Kellie Pennington stepped to the starting block in lane three for the 50 Freestyle on the first day of the Division III Swimming and Diving National Championships held in Indianapolis, Ind.
Only 23 seconds later, Pennington touched the wall first, ahead of Rowan’s Christine Raleigh and Emory’s Claire Pavlak, and the Springfield sophomore swimmer claimed the 50 Freestyle National Championship.
Pennington finished the race in 23 seconds flat, breaking the school record she set a month earlier at the NEWMAC Championships.
“When I touched the wall, I looked at my time first, then my place,” said Pennington. “Seeing that I won, I was really excited because I didn’t even make it to finals last year.”
Last season, Pennington was unhappy with her performance in the national championships. Like this season, she entered the event seeded second in the 50 Freestyle, but she did not qualify for the final race in that event.
“Last year, I ended on a bad note,” said the Monson, Mass. native. “That disappointment stayed with me all year and added to my motivation during the summer and the whole season.”
As a freshman, the experience of competing on the national stage helped set up a successful weekend as a sophomore this season.
“One of her biggest attributes for her this year was the experience she gained last year,” said head coach John Taffe. “When she finished the meet last year, I think in her own mind she knew she could compete with everybody there.”
Pennington had a stellar season, not including the National Championship title. For the second straight season, she was named NEWMAC Women’s Swimmer of the Year. She also became the first female swimmer to win a national title under Taffe in his 23 years at Springfield.
“We’ve had some (national champion) female swimmers that were divers,” said Taffe. “We’ve had several national runner-ups, but never a national champion in swimming. That was very nice and satisfying.”
Pennington led the Pride to a 12th place finish at nationals, the same place SC finished last season.
“Overall, I think we placed quite well with the small numbers we brought to the meet,” said the NEWMAC Swimmer of the Year.
The Pride only brought six swimmers, competing against teams who had almost double that number.
“For us to be right there in the mix and feel like we’re one of the stronger teams nationally, that’s what we strive for,” said Taffe. “It was a good week I would say.”
Now comes the difficult part for Taffe and SC. Four of those six swimmers are seniors.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to replenish, but that isn’t easy either,” said Taffe.
But SC does return the current national champion in the 50 Freestyle.
Entering the 2012-2013 season, Pennington doesn’t feel any pressure defending her title. As Taffe would say, she cares more about the time next to her name than the place she finishes in. Pennington echoes that idea.
“I am most happy with a season when I swim my fastest times,” she said. “If that means I get first or third place, I wouldn’t care.”
To go along with Pennington’s success, the Pride got more good news during their stint in Indianapolis as sophomore Jennifer Thompson and senior Courtney Keefe earned All-American honors, as well as Pennington.
Thompson and Keefe are both divers, while Pennington was the lone SC swimmer on the All-American list.
Terrence Payne may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org