The South Whidbey swim relay team practice their relay handoffs on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, at Kamiak High School in Mukilteo, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

The South Whidbey swim relay team practice their relay handoffs on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, at Kamiak High School in Mukilteo, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

South Whidbey swimmers overcome long days to reach state meet

The quartet endures almost daily ferry rides after school, and sometimes before, to compete with Kamiak in a co-op program.

Throughout the high school girls swim and dive season, spectators at meets involving Kamiak High School may have noticed a group of four athletes who stood out.

Among the sea of purple-clad swimmers and divers whose caps read “Knights” are four athletes wearing blue with a Falcon on their caps.

No, Kamiak didn’t run out of matching uniforms.

The four seemingly mismatched athletes are wearing exactly what they’re supposed to.

That’s because the blue-clad quartet seen swimming alongside the Knights isn’t a group of Kamiak students at all. They reside a short ferry ride across the Puget Sound on Whidbey Island and attend South Whidbey High School.

The four swimmers — seniors Parker Forsyth and Abigale Ireland, junior Zetta Prendergast and freshman Sean Carr — make the commute from the island to the Mukilteo-based high school and back six days a week to compete with Kamiak as a part of a co-op program between the schools.

Monday through Thursday, the four Falcon swimmers leave school at 1 p.m. to catch the ferry to Mukilteo. From there they walk 10 minutes uphill from the ferry dock to a car they leave on the mainland to finish the first portion of their commute. They catch the ferry back home after practices and oftentimes don’t return home to 5:30 p.m.

“You feel almost as accomplished from making the commute as you do finishing the practices,” Carr quipped.

On Fridays and Saturdays, when the swimmers have practice in the mornings, they hop aboard the ferry for the first part of their trek at 5 a.m. and catch the 7 a.m. ferry back. On Fridays, they go straight from the ferry to class.

“That’s a little rough for the wake-up times,” Forsyth said. “School after practice is a little rough.”

The time commitment shown by the swimmers certainly doesn’t go unnoticed.

“We talk about it all the time,” said Kamiak coach Chris Erickson, who also serves as South Whidbey’s coach. “Certainly every year at the (team) banquet we make a note of it, saying these guys’ dedication level is pretty impressive.”

Erickson has become well-versed in running the co-op program. He said it started several years ago when South Whidbey’s Kinsey Eager joined his Kamiak team for practices and competition. The number of participants from Whidbey Island grew from there and has reached as many as six in a single season.

This year’s group of Falcons is thankful for the athletes who started the tradition.

“The girls that started this, they’re amazing,” Forsyth said. “… (Eager) kind of paved the way for the rest of us swimmers, and I think we’re all extremely thankful for that opportunity. I would have never even thought of asking a different school if we could swim for them. It’s just this amazing opportunity that’s right in front of us, so how could we not take it?”

All four swimmers agreed that the travel is easily the most challenging part of the season, but it’s also not the only obstacles they’ve had to overcome.

The sheer difference in size between the schools — Whidbey is in Class 1A and Kamiak in 4A — can be a bit intimidating. On top of that, Kamiak’s rich tradition of success means oftentimes they’re swimming side-by-side at practice with swimmers who have had a higher level of training and are much faster.

“For me it was definitely pretty intimidating because Kamiak is about four times as big as our school,” Ireland said. “… There’s a lot of talent (at Kamiak). It can be hard to adjust to the difference in skill, but I think we’ve done a very good job.”

That stiff competition in daily practices has paid its dividends, though.

“After joining the team freshman year, it’s just been crazy to see the spike in ability,” Ireland said. “I think all of us got so much faster as soon as we started practicing here. It’s really just great to see how much we’ve improved throughout the years.”

Forsyth said the way Kamiak’s athletes and coaches have accepted them as one of their own has made the transition easier as well.

“Everybody was just so welcoming to us. It felt great,” she said. “I think something that’s really special about our sport is that we have the opportunity to meet new people. Living on an island, you know everybody, but going over to Kamiak and meeting new people I think is something that we don’t usually get to do.”

Prendergast, who started swimming with Kamiak as a sophomore last fall, noted the importance of having older South Whidbey teammates who have experience with the travel.

“I feel like last year when I first started out that Parker and Abigale had a really good handle on everything and kind of took charge of getting us across when we were still trying to figure things out,” she said.

“As the only freshman, it’s really nice for them to be up to driving me and stuff,” Carr added. “I would say that they’ve really taken me under their wing and have been really supportive.”

Forsyth said she and Ireland were just continuing on a tradition of helpfulness started by those before them.

“It’s just sort of passed on over the years between the swimmers,” she said.

The South Whidbey swimmers practice and compete with Kamiak throughout the regular season, but they aren’t allowed to score points for the Knights during meets. Erickson said that means the South Whidbey athletes will often swim in the junior-varsity portion of dual-meets, but he tries give them opportunities to swim varsity races in meets where Kamiak could absorb the loss of a few points without it affecting the likely outcome.

Another thing the Falcons can’t do is travel on the team bus with Kamiak, so parents of the South Whidbey swimmers will drive them to away meets.

When the postseason rolls around, the South Whidbey athletes are split up from the Kamiak swimmers they’ve been with all season. That creates an interesting scenario for Erickson when the district meets take place. The finals of the 4A district meet that Kamiak competes in are held at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning in Snohomish. The finals of the 2A/1A district meet that South Whidbey competes in are the same day but in Anacortes at 2:30 p.m.

Erickson said he has just enough time to make it from Snohomish to Anacortes for the start of the meet and that Archbishop Murphy coach Erin Edmonson has provided guidance for the South Whidbey swimmers during warmups over the years.

“He really puts in the extra effort to make us feel like we’re a big team, like we have a coach like all the other teams do,” Ireland said. “… I can’t believe that he comes straight from Kamiak’s district (meet) to come see us. He’s always so happy and excited, too.”

Kamiak competing in a different location also means the Falcons go from having a group of 3o-plus teammates cheering them on in the regular season to a much smaller section of fans.

“It’s definitely very different,” Ireland said. “… We’re a little bit outnumbered by all the other teams, but our parents and even some friends will drive up to our meet on their own to form kind of a student section for us for some support.”

At this year’s district meet, the Falcons saw all of those long hours of travel pay off in a big way.

The quartet teamed up for a fifth-place finish in the 200-yard freestyle relay, finishing the race in 1 minute, 57.82 seconds. The time secured the team a spot at this week’s 2A/1A state championships at King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way.

“Qualifying for state was pretty amazing,” Prendergast said, “and I feel like we’re a much tighter team because we are all on a relay together.”

Forsyth also qualified for state in two individual events — the 100 breaststroke and the 200 individual medley. She’s seeded fifth in the breaststroke.

“My high school experience definitely wouldn’t be the same without Kamiak,” Forsyth said. “I’ve learned so much from Coach Erickson and the team. I wouldn’t trade it for any parts of high school.”

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