Ellie Eckert let a wide smile dance across her face Saturday as younger swimmers gave her hugs and pats on the back on the deck of Wildwood pool. She had just been named the Lynchburg Aquatic League's Swimmer of the Year, an honor dubbed the Rob Quel Award for excellence in swimming.
The little ones clung to her, enamored by her presence, as thrilled, perhaps, as anyone to see the 18-year-old who has dedicated so much of her time to the league receive the award.
After a summer away from the pool because of the coronavirus, the moment was a reminder that in the LAL older swimmers often pass down their knowledge, and perhaps their infectious smiles, to the younger ones, leaving behind a legacy bigger than one individual.
In this case, Eckert has coached for Oakwood since she was 14 years old. She kept swimming with her team the whole time, and on Saturday also claimed the girls 15-18 100-meter IM with a time of 1:13.62 in addition to the Quel Award, making for quite a sendoff.
"It's the most fun thing I've ever done," Eckert said of her summer duties. "I just love it so much. It just makes me so happy and I feel like it's really redefined swimming for me to watch the younger kids get better and better.
"It's fun to be someone that they look up to. I could have a terrible swim and all my kids would be coming up to me like, 'That was such a good swim, Coach Ellie.' That just puts things into perspective. Even though I'm getting down on myself, there's all these kids looking up to me."
There was plenty to look up to Saturday. Left and right, old records were broken and new ones put up in their place, giving swimmers across the league new goalposts to shoot for.
In all, three swimmers were responsible for seven individual records being shattered, including this one: racing in the 13-14 girls 50-meter free, Peakland's Emory Hill swam a speedy 28.23, breaking a record that had stood since 1988 when Gretchen von Oesen posted a 28.59 mark. Hill was one of 12 swimmers at the meet to win three individual events. She also broke a 2013 record set by Casey Wrabley with a 30.65 to win the 50 fly, then also finished first in the 100 free.
Her team, the Peakland Otters, won their fourth straight LAL 'A' Meet title by scoring 642 points to second-place Oakwood's 580. Farmington (302), Hill City (300.50) and Wildwood (173) rounded out the top five.
Peakland began its current roll in 2017, after rival Hill City claimed the championship meet the year prior. It got back to its winning ways after the pandemic canceled the 2020 season.
"A lot of these kids came back from a whole year off from not swimming," Peakland coach Greg Hofmann said. "And pretty much just started back right where we left off."
It was a robust summer for the league, with nearly 900 swimmers competing across 12 teams. And while they'd been at it for well over a month before Saturday's finale, this was a celebration of sorts: a revival of the year's most anticipated meet that typically attracts hundreds of spectators.
"We needed this," Hofmann added. "We needed this summer. These kids, they live and die Peakland. That's their summer home. It's not just swim practice. … They're at the pool all the time. So for them to get back with their best friends, to enjoy the summer, that was normal. The kids needed this and that's what they rallied behind was just being back together and that fellowship. They pick each other up, so it was great to see the bonds being reestablished."
Oakwood's Emily Judy and teammate Brendan Whitfield also set records at the meet. Judy, in the 13-14 girls bracket, created a new mark in the 50 back and 100 back. In the boys 15-18 bracket, Whitfield set three new records: the 50 back, 100 back and 100 IM.
In the day's final event, the mixed 15 & over 200-meter freestyle relay, Farmington's Gabe Provost, Ben Hiss, Davis Sneed and JC Gordon clocked a 1:45.46 to edge out Oakwood (1:45.88) and eclipse Hill City by 1 1/2 points for third place in the team standings. Swimming the anchor leg, Gordon won the sprint to the wall and then pounded his arms into the water in celebration.
"The adrenaline was pumping, everybody was going so fast, and I knew if [my teammates] got it out there for me I could try to bring it home," Gordon said. "Got lucky, I guess."
Sneed has taken part in enough 'A' meets to know they typically come down to the final relays.
"It's my favorite event," he said of the relay. "It's all adrenaline, it's all rush, it's all brotherhood."
Provost knew he had to get out to a fast start as the leadoff guy in the pool.
"I said, 'We've just got to put it into high gear here. Just go out there and kill it,'" Provost said. " … We've been racing these [teams] all year and they've been beating us and getting us on very close times, but we were able to pull it through."
And Hiss, knowing his team was just a few points behind Hill City, decided he'd give his all.
"I've got to bring this home," he told himself. "Last race until September, really."
Eckert was the first recipient of the Quel Award since 2019, when Tara Enneking earned it. In addition to setting league records, Enneking had spent countless hours with the LAL every summer. Like Eckert, she was known for her strong work ethic, for volunteering her time and for working with younger swimmers.
"I feel super humbled because Tara, she was someone I really looked up to," Eckert said. "I was like, Tara's awesome and amazing. So it's just super humbling that I'm seen in the same way she is, because I've just grown up looking up to her and people like that."
Lynchburg Aquatic League
'A' Meet Results
Team scores: 1. Peakland 642, 2. Oakwood 580, 3. Farmington 302, 4. Hill City 300.50, 5. Wildwood 173, 6. Amherst County 94, 7. Forest Area (FAST) 82, 8. Vista Acres 80.50, 9. Boonsboro 33, 10. Bedford Area Y 25, 11. Falling River 18, 12. Rainbow Forest 13.
Individual results (first place only) — Mixed 8U 100 Medley Relay: Oakwood (Mason Sloan, Noah Leger, Mac Morrison, Austin Woodruff) 1:31.88; Mixed 9-10 100 Medley Relay: Oakwood (Sam Edwards, Broughton Webb, Mitchell Rogers, Taylor Woodruff) 1:13.47; Mixed 11-12 200 Medley Relay: Oakwood (Luke Morrison, Luke Hottle, Olivia Judy, Graham Woodruff) 2:17.87; Mixed 13-14 200 Medley Relay: Oakwood (Emily Judy, Charlie Webb, Davis Hottle, Norah Daly) 2:08.06; Mixed 15&O 200 Medley Relay: Oakwood (Brendan Whitfield, Ellie Eckert, Owen Widzisz, Andrew Rogers) 1:57.74; Boys 8U 50 Free: Austin Woodruff (Oak) 39.99; Girls 8U 50 Free: Josie Milam (Peakland) 44.89; Boys 9-10 50 Free: Taylor Woodruff (Oak) 35.39; Boys 11-12 100 Free: Graham Woodruff (Oak) 1:05.14; Girls 11-12 100 Free: Rowena Phillips (Peak) 1:06.50; Boys 13-14 100 Free: Joshua Warren (Farmington) 1:02.49; Girls 13-14 100 Free: Emory Hill (Peak) 1:00.85; Boys 15&O 100 Free: Jack Mills (Hill City) 54.05; Girls 15&O 100 Free: Kaitlyn Bauer (Peak) 1:00.96; Boys 13-14 50 Back: Davis Hottle (Oak) 32.13; Girls 13-14 50 Back: Emily Judy (Oak) 32.07; Boys 15&O 50 Back: Brendan Whitfield (Oak) 27.53; Girls 15&O 50 Back: Grace Warren (Farm) 32.55; Boys 8U 25 Fly: Mac Morrison (Oak) 20.21; Girls 8U 25 Fly: Lainey Pennington (Farm) 22.51; Boys 9-10 25 Fly: David Roberts (Peak) 16.32; Girls 9-10 25 Fly: Taylor Woodruff (Oak) 18.02; Boys 11-12 50 Fly: Luke Hottle (Oak) 32.17; Girls 11-12 50 Fly: Sarah Warren (Farm) 33.64; Boys 13-14 100 Fly: Max Schonfelder (Hill City) 1:02.74; Girls 13-14 100 Fly: Addison Bond (Hill City) 1:19.22; Boys 15&O 100 Fly: Jack Mills (Hill City) 59.39; Girls 15&O 100 Fly: Caroline Russell (Peak) 1:11.15; Boys 8U 25 Free: Owen Marks (Boonsboro) 17.48; Girls 8U 25 Free: Lucy Loper (Peak) 19.58; Boys 9-10 25 Free: David Roberts (Peak) 15.08; Girls 9-10 25 Free: Xenia Bannister (Peak) 15.83; Boys 11-12 50 Free: Graham Woodruff (Oak) 29.46; Girls 11-12 50 Free: Kaelyn Mahland (Peak) 31.65; Boys 13-14 50 Free: Max Schonfelder (Hill City) 26.38; Girls 13-14 50 Free: Emory Hill (Peak) 28.23; Boys 15&O 50 Free: Owen Widzisz (Oak) 26.09; Girls 15&O 50 Free: Kaitlyn Bauer (Peak) 28.71; Boys 13-14 50 Breast: Simon Emery (Vista Acres) 34.98; Girls 13-14 50 Breast: Frances Fenton (Peak) 37.57; Boys 15&O 50 Breast: Charlie Schindler (Peak) 31.62; Girls 15&O 50 Breast: Caroline Falwell (Wildwood) 37.92; Boys 8U 100 IM: Austin Woodruff (Oak) 1:43.13; Girls 8U 100 IM: Lainey Pennington (Farm) 1:54.36; Boys 9-10 100 IM: Mitchell Rogers (Oak) 1:23.14; Girls 9-10 100 IM: Broughton Webb (Oak) 1:31.62; Boys 11-12 100 IM: Luke Hottle (Oak) 1:12.78; Girls 11-12 100 IM: Rowena Phillips (Peak) 1:14.58; Boys 13-14 100 IM: Samuel Mejia-Ibarra (FAST) 1:10.68; Girls 13-14 100 IM: Frances Fenton (Peak) 1:12.45; Boys 15&O 100 IM: Brendan Whitfield (Oak) 59.49; Girls 15&O 100 IM: Ellie Eckert (Oak) 1:13.62; Boys 8U 25 Back: Austin Woodruff (Oak) 22.38; Girls 8U 25 Back: Skylar Weeks (Amherst) 24.12; Boys 9-10 25 Back: Owen Williams (Peak) 18.07; Girls 9-10 25 Back: Taylor Woodruff (Oak) 19.28; Boys 11-12 50 Back: Graham Woodruff (Oak) 35.44; Girls 11-12 50 Back: Rowena Phillips (Peak) 34.46; Boys 13-14 100 Back: Davis Hottle (Oak) 1:11.91; Girls 13-14 100 Back: Emily Judy (Oak) 1:07.74; Boys 15&O 100 Back: Brendan Whitfield (Oak) 59.46; Girls 15&O 100 Back: Caroline Russell (Peak) 1:09.68; Boys 8U 25 Breast: Owen Marks (Boons) 23.77; Girls 8U 25 Breast: Caroline Nelson (Farm) 25.60; Boys 9-10 25 Breast: Caleb Wu (Farm) 20.02; Girls 9-10 25 Breast: Broughton Webb (Oak) 20.28; Boys 11-12 50 Breast: Luke Hottle (Oak) 37.39; Girls 11-12 50 Breast: Kaelyn Mahland (Peak) 41.33; Boys 13-14 100 Breast: Simon Emery (Vista Acres) 1:16.29; Girls 13-14 100 Breast: Frances Fenton (Peak) 1:21.75; Boys 15&O 100 Breast: Michael Marotta (Peak) 1:08.11; Girls 15&O 100 Breast: Caroline Falwell (Wildwood) 1:22.14; Boys 13-14 50 Fly: Max Schonfelder (Hill City) 28.72; Girls 13-14 50 Fly: Emory Hill (Peak) 30.65; Boys 15&O 50 Fly: Jack Mills (Hill City) 26.96; Girls 15&O 50 Fly: Kaitlyn Bauer (Peak) 30.44; Mixed 8U 100 Free Relay: Oakwood (Clayton Cox, Noah Leger, Mac Morrison, Austin Woodruff) 1:21.26; Mixed 9-10 100 Free Relay: Peakland (Owen Williams, Xenia Bannister, Liam Loper, David Roberts) 1:04.24; Mixed 11-12 200 Free Relay: Oakwood (Luke Morrison, Olivia Judy, Luke Hottle, Graham Woodruff) 2:03.15; Mixed 13-14 200 Free Relay: Oakwood (Charlie Webb, Norah Daly, Emily Judy, Davis Hottle) 1:53.63; Mixed 15&O 200 Free Relay: Farmington (Gabe Provost, Ben Hiss, Davis Sneed, JC Gordon) 1:45.46.
Triple winners (won all three of their individual events): Austin Woodruff (Oakwood), Davis Roberts (Peakland), Taylor Woodruff (Oakwood), Graham Woodruff (Oakwood), Rowena Phillips (Peakland), Emory Hill (Peakland), Jack Mills (Hill City), Kaitlyn Bauer (Peakland), Brendan Whitfield (Oakwood), Luke Hottle (Oakwood), Max Schonfelder (Hill City), Frances Fenton (Peakland).
LAL Meet Records: Emory Hill (Peakland) in 13-14 Girls 50 Free (old record: Gretchen von Oesen of Peakland in 1988; Emory Hill (Peakland) in 13-14 Girls 50 Fly (old record: Casey Wrabley of Hill City in 2013); Emily Judy (Oakwood) in 13-14 Girls 50 Back (old record: Anna Meinke of Wildwood in 2012); Emily Judy (Oakwood) in 13-14 Girls 100 Back (old record: Meggie Edwards of Peakland in 2001); Brendan Whitfield (Oakwood) in 15-18 Boys 50 Back (old record: Stephen Hawkins of Oakwood in 2006); Brendan Whitfield (Oakwood) in 15-18 Boys 100 Back (old record) Caleb Williams of Peakland in 2010); Brandan Whitfield (Oakwood) in 15-18 Boys 100 IM (old record: Travis Stauder of Rainbow Forest in 2008).