Centennial junior Tess Simpson had been close before, capturing a second place finish in each of her first two years of state 5A-II competition.
Saturday, she broke through, thanks to a realization she made while she swam a wide range of events as a freshman and a sophomore.
“I’m a sprinter,” Simpson said.
And now she can say she’s one of Arizona’s fastest. She blew past the state championship field in the 50-yard freestyle final, posting a time of 24.21 seconds.
Simpson entered the final feeling this was her race to lose, despite her near misses and a field that included two girls with faster times this season.
“I actually felt very confident,” she said. “That’s one of the events I swim in club and one of my best events.”
Simpson had the same confidence in her speed before the season started, when she asked coach Shannon Orcutt if she could focus on the 50- and 100-yard freestyle races. It paid off, as she dominated what appeared to be a tightly bunched field going in.
“Tess had asked me at the beginning of the season to swim the 50 because based on last year’s times, she thought she could win the event,” Orcutt said. “She ended up winning by almost a second, which is huge in the 50 free.”
Simpson was so sure she’d win that she didn’t have an emotional reaction to her victory — until she saw Orcutt.
“To look over and see my coach teary-eyed when I won was special,” Simpson said.
Simpson finished fourth in a loaded 100 free field. The arrival of swimmers from Scottsdale Chaparral and Scottsdale Desert Mountain, added to the top programs at Phoenix Pinnacle and Phoenix Horizon, made things difficult.
Simpson’s sister Cece, a sophomore, felt the brunt of the extra competition. Cece finished second in two events as a freshman, but was third in the 100-yard butterfly and fifth in the 500-yard freestyle Saturday.
Still, the younger Simpson kept her head up.
“She was really excited for me,” Tess Simpson said. “But she wasn’t disappointed. She swam two of her best times and she knew the other girls would be tough to beat.”
Now, Tess Simpson can shoot for bigger goals. She’s started to get recruiting letters from colleges, and will compete — along with YMCA Westside Silver Fins teammate Erica Stock — in the West Coast sectional meet in March.
Her high school coach praised Simpson’s determination, saying it will serve her swimming career well.
“Tess is very dedicated and driven. Once she has something in her mind, she won’t let it be,” Orcutt said. “She really focused at meets this year and treated every meet like it was the biggest meet she had. Her focus comes from her hard work that she puts in the pool each day.”