Entering the 2018-19 high school swim season, Adairsville senior Rylee Moss had achieved virtually every goal she’d set for herself. However, one notable accomplishment was missing.
She had never had a group of teammates fast enough to help her qualify for state in a relay event. Then again, no girls relay team in Adairsville history had ever reached that goal.
Just a few months later, Moss and the Tigers will be swimming in two relay finals Saturday at the GHSA state swim championships in Atlanta.
"I've spent the last two to three hours, trying to wrap my head around it to be able to grasp it in a way that I can explain it to them, what they've been able to accomplish," Adairsville head coach Shawn Williams said Friday afternoon. "To them, they're just taking it as, 'I didn't cut enough time.' I'm trying to figure out a way to give them some perspective. ... This is just phenomenal."
Despite qualifying for state in all three relays — the 200-yard freestyle, 400-yard freestyle and 200-yard medley — Adairsville swam in just the pair of 200 events in Friday's preliminaries. That way, Moss and Harper Powell could each swim in two individual races. (High school swimmers are only allowed to compete in a maximum of four events per meet.)
The relay teams, which both consisted of Moss, Powell, Mallory Cook and Kayleigh Rice, each cut nearly three seconds off their personal-best times to land inside the top-25 and secure a spot in the finals. They placed 23rd in the free with a time of 1 minute, 46.86 seconds (a 2.81-second improvement) and 25th in the medley, beating their personal record of 2:03.97 by 3.01 seconds.
"Who does that?" Williams said with a laugh.
Having finished in the 20-30 range in both events, Adairsville will compete in consolation heat "C" during Saturday's finals. The Tigers competed in the prelims against schools from Class A through Class 5A, but after the finals, the A-3A results will be broken down into its own separate state rankings, giving the team a chance to finish top-10 in the 200 free and 200 medley.
Moss and Powell will also compete in individual finals Saturday. Moss placed in the top 10 of the 200-yard individual medley and the 100-yard butterfly, while Powell finished inside the top 30 for the 50-yard free.
"As fantastic as this is right now, where we're sitting, I'm personally waiting to see how it will settle down [Saturday], when they start splitting them up by division," Williams said. "I have no idea where they're going to land, but I know it's going to be good."
It's been quite the journey for the Tigers to go from never having met a state qualification in a relay event to competing in the state finals for two of them.
After the season got underway in November, it didn't take the team long to qualify in the 200 free. Cutting enough time in the other couple of events proved much more challenging.
“I knew we could get the 200 [free], that’s just a matter of pushing hard, non-stop” Williams said. “I knew those three [Moss, Powell and Cook] would cut enough time that we could have somebody else that could just finish it.
“The 400 is tougher. It’s harder to find that many people who are that quick. The medley? Oh my God, we were six or seven seconds off, and I said, ‘Whoo, we’re going to have to figure this out.'”
There was admittedly a weight on the members of the team as they tried to make the needed time in the medley and 400.
“It was a lot of pressure at first, because we knew we wanted to do it for Rylee,” Cook said. “That was always something she wanted. She wanted a group to be able to go with her [to state] and support her. That was one of the main things we wanted to do for her, because she’s so good and we want to give her the best shot she can.”
A lineup change in the medley proved to be the key in that event, as Cook switched from the breaststroke to the fly and Moss went from fly to breast. Consistent improvement from sophomores Powell and Cook and freshman Rice made the difference in the 400. Adairsville qualified in both events at the Shiver Me Timbers meet on Jan. 12 at Habersham Central.
“I was hootin’ and hollerin’ and I was bangin’ on the table,” Williams said of his reaction that day. “I knocked over a soda; I had to go and get paper towels; and the other coaches were all laughing. Their swimmers were kind of scared like, ‘What’s wrong with him?’ …
“That was really special, because you know how badly they want it. They’ve been talking about it in the hallway. They come by to see you in the morning and talk to you about it. They come by during lunch to talk about what they’re eating, how they’re getting their study time in and getting stuff taken care of. They really want it. They’re not doing it 99 percent. When they get it, it’s like, ‘There it is. It’s all coming into place.’ They’ve earned it; they deserve it.”
Williams said the achievements in the relays this year has not only eased concerns he had about the future of the girls program after Moss graduates but also led to an increased passion from the middle school swimmers who want to follow in the wake of the current high-schoolers.
"Where you are today is where they're going to be," Williams said of a recent conversation he had with Rice about the team's encouraging group of sixth-graders. "We all need to come together and help them to be ready for what you're doing today."
That emphasis on doing what's best for the team is exemplified by the relationship between Rice and fellow freshman Josie Siniard. The friends have been battling each other all season for the final spot on the "A" relay team.
Siniard joined Moss, Powell and Cook in the 200 free for the first meet of the season at Richmond Hill High School. Rice, though, had joined the other three by the time they qualified for the 200 free at the Tiger Plunge, and she remained on the A squad through qualification in the other two relays.
The day before the Bartow County Swim Championship, Siniard beat out Rice for the coveted No. 4 slot. The move worked, as the teams continued to cut times. Rice kept working to improve and took advantage of Siniard leaving for vacation this weekend to return to the A team.
“Me and Kayleigh were always kind of fighting for that fourth spot,” Siniard said. “Kayleigh got it first. We’ve always been really good friends and practice together, but I just kept practicing more and more. Eventually, coach gave me a chance to get back on [the A relay team], and we dropped even more time.
"Now, I’m not even going, because I’m going to Disney World. She’s taking my place, so I’m really happy for her.”
Earlier this week, Rice admitted she was a little worried about how she would do stepping back onto the A team for such an important meet.
“I am kind of nervous, because I haven’t been able to swim with them the rest of the season, since Josie took my spot,” she said Monday. “… It’s been a lot of work, but I’m still going to get my time down.”
She succeeded Friday, proving just how far she's come. Rice swam the freestyle leg of the medley in 28.45 seconds and her time in the free was 29.30. They were well below the time of 31.22 seconds she swam in the opening leg of the 200 free at county and also were lower than the finishes posted by Siniard in the same meet.
In truth, Rice, Siniard, Powell and Cook all have made tremendous strides to get the relay teams to this point. While the two freshmen have been barometers for success as they battled for the fourth position, the pair of sophomores, who are also good friends, joined the swim team last season on a whim, making their rise to the top even more impressive.
“I knew nothing about swim at all,” Cook said. “I just showed up, and I tried it. I was a freshman, so I needed something to do.”
Said Powell, “We didn’t really realize how much time and effort had to be put into the sport. … At the time, we didn’t realize what we had gotten ourselves into, but it’s paid off.”
They quickly fell in love with the sport and really admired Moss' dedication to the "swimming lifestyle," as Powell put it. Powell enjoyed it so much that she joined the Northwest Georgia Nitros club team last spring. It leads to her swimming with the club team in the afternoons at Calhoun High.
Meanwhile, Moss is training with Tidal Wave Swimming in Acworth, and the other team members are practicing at the Adairsville High pool. It can make for an interesting dynamic, but all team members know the work is being put in, even if the laps are coming in different pools.
The teammates often only swim together on race day, and Saturday will mark the final time the group gets to compete together, as Moss wraps up her high-school career as one of the top athletes in the county.
“It is obviously bittersweet,” she said. “I’ve been swimming with them since eighth grade in the middle-school program. …
“They always support me. They’re always behind me, cheering behind my lane. I have that at Tidal Wave, but my friends at Adairsville see so much potential in me. I’m really going to miss that.”
The fact that her teammates put in so much time over the summer, through the fall and into the winter to see her reach a goal that seemed highly unlikely 12 months ago means the world to Moss.
“It was definitely a shock, because I obviously wasn’t used to it,” she said of qualifying for state. “It felt really good to finally be with a group of girls who cared that much. I’m sure it meant a lot to them, but they also knew it meant a lot to me to be able to go. …
“They’re a very dedicated group of girls. They care a lot about their swimming, and I can’t wait to see what happens next year because I’m hoping they’ll qualify next year, too.”
With four underclassmen among the top five girls swimmers, the future remains bright for the Adairsville relay teams. But Powell knows that replacing Moss will be a tall task.
“Definitely without Rylee we’ll be losing a strong leg in our relays,” Powell said. “We have a year to train, so we can get all of our times down to qualify the relays next year. That would be amazing, because Rylee has been a huge help this year.”
If they're able to match this year's feat, the idea of an Adairsville girls relay team being unable to reach state will become a distant memory. Heck, even some of the members on this year's team didn't know just how historic their achievements were until after the fact.
“We didn’t realize we were the first until we were told that by coach,” Cook said. “It’s cool, but we should do it again next year and really for two more years.”
Even if qualifying relay teams for state becomes the new norm for the Tigers, the 2018-19 season will remain a pillar of excellence.
On multiple occasions, Williams has referred to the Habersham Central meet, which is also when Powell qualified in the 50 free, as “possibly the best day in program history.” Well, Friday officially supplanted it.
"Today, definitely raised the bar," Williams said.
And it’s entirely possible that a standout showing Saturday could knock the prelims performance off the top of the podium.