Kelli Benjamin is afraid she’s sounding corny.
Between the movie-like improvement and the dream finish, this year played out better than she could have imagined, and she’s trying to explain how it felt on the day she won two state swimming titles.
“I don’t mean to be cheesy,” she said, “but when I touched the wall and saw that time, I felt like everything was on pause.”
The Gilbert High senior began swimming competitively as a freshman in high school, and she wasn’t very good. In the state preliminaries that year, she finished 23rd out of 24 girls and couldn’t break one minute in the 100-yard freestyle.
Fast forward three years later, and Benjamin finished this season as a state champion in both the 50- and 100-yard freestyles, earning her the Tribune’s Girls Swimmer of the Year award.
She didn’t have any experience when she joined the swim team at Gilbert, so it wasn’t a huge surprise for her to struggle. But Benjamin’s competitive nature kicked in, and she worked hard to become a top swimmer.
“I had no idea what to expect that first year,” Benjamin said. “I was clueless. But I just remember being so disappointed. I’ve always been very competitive, like, ‘Let’s race to see who can get to the water fountain first.’ If something’s in my way, I always try my hardest to get past it.”
The first barrier for Benjamin was the one-minute mark in the 100. Once she passed that, it was onto another goal, and another. Some were big, others small to keep pushing her. But going into this season, the end goal was huge.
“I wanted to win state, that was my biggest goal,” Benjamin said. “Fortunately it worked out.”
Benjamin didn’t feel right in her preliminary races on Friday, but after a pep talk from her swim coaches and a good early relay race on Saturday, she knew it was now or never.
The 100-yard freestyle was up first, and fellow swimmers later told Benjamin that she acted like a different person leading up to the race.
“I pretty much had a mental block of everything,” she said. “I was just focused. I kept visualizing my race, had music in my ears. People said I looked so mean getting on my blocks. I was just in my zone.”
Benjamin swam a solid race, finishing in 50.19 seconds, more than a second ahead of Xavier’s Alisha Bender for her first title.
Then it was the 50, where she finished in 23.07 seconds, narrowly beating Red Mountain’s Samantha Guttmacher.
Benjamin will continue her career next year at Texas A&M, but she won’t forget those races for a long time.
“It was sort of surreal for me,” she said. “Hearing everyone screaming your name, it was like I was in a football stadium. I actually did what I wanted to do. It was so cool.”
All-Tribune first team
Name School Year Event Comment
Kelli Benjamin Gilbert Sr. 50 free State champ in 50, 100 free
Alisha Bender Xavier Jr. 100 free 2nd place to Benjamin with an All-American time
Kat Simonovic Mountain View Sr. 200 free Fastest in state; also won 500 free
Carly Stevens Arcadia Jr. 500 free State champ in Division II
Leticia Lelli Chaparral Jr. 100 fly Fastest time in state; won 100 back as well
Talie Anchustegui Xavier Jr. 100 back 2nd to Lelli, also 2nd in 100 fly
Katie Olsen Desert Vista Sr. 100 breast Won state title despite sickness
Megan Cox Chaparral Jr. 200 IM Division I champ; 2nd in 500 free
Chloe Hacker Corona del Sol Fr. Diving Division I title
Swimmer of the Year: Kelli Benjamin, Gilbert
Coach of the Year: Laura Winslow, Chaparral: Led the Firebirds to second-place finish in first foray into Division I
All-Tribune second team
Name School Year Event Comment
Samantha Guttmacher Red Mountain So. 50 free Second in Division I
Kyra Zsiga Xavier Sr. 100 free Third in Division I
Clara Jenck Mountain Pointe So. 200 free Third in Division I
Ally Loper Desert Mountain Sr. 500 free Third in Division I
Briana Jurries Valley Christian So. 100 fly Division II champ; also won 100 breast
Alexis Daswick Notre Dame Jr. 100 back Second in Division II
Elaine Casap Xavier Sr. 100 breast Second to Olsen in Division I
Sara Jurek Chandler Sr. 200 IM Third in Division I
Kyra Tatlow Westwood Fr. Diving Second place in Division I
Cactus Shadows: Belen Enguinados, Sr., 100 fly; Mesa: Ciara Jenkins, Sr., 100 breast; Mountain View: Chloe Mennega, Diving; Notre Dame: Samantha Getzen, Fr., 100 fly; Saguaro: Evelyn Beguiristain, Sr., 200 IM.