Grove City sophomore eyes All-American status at swimming nationals
Four-hundredths of a second. That was all that stood between Grove City swimmer Megan Bilko and being an All-American in the 1,650-yard freestyle last year.
It's all the motivation she needed for this year.
The sophomore from Canon-McMillan is making her second trip to the NCAA Division III Championships, which begin Wednesday in Indianapolis.
During her freshman season, she was part of Grove City's 800 free relay team that placed eighth and earned All-American recognition, given to the top-16 finishers in each event. But those four-hundredths of a second in the 1,650 freestyle still haunt her.
“It really bothered her that she was so close to being 16th,” Wolverines coach Dave Fritz said.
Bilko's solution was to work harder than ever.
“Everyone says they're going to work hard every day,” Fritz said. “But most people can't maintain that intensity. She has maintained that every day this season. She shows up every day and works like there's no more time to prepare.”
The payoff has been extensive. At the Presidents' Athletic Conference Championships, she won three individual titles (500 and 1,650 free and 400 individual medley) and was part of three winning relays (400 medley, 400 and 800 free).
Bilko was named PAC Swimmer of the Year, set four Grove City records (400 IM, 500 freestyle 1,000 freestyle and 1,650 freestyle) and qualified for nationals in three individual events as well as in the 800 free relay with teammates Abby Jank, Tori Baker and Lauren Cassano (Peters Township).
“I definitely feel more confident going in this year,” she said. “There's definitely a level of improvement overall in different events. Being able to swim the IM this year, I hadn't swam it in several years, so I'm improving all around in different events. It made this year a lot better than last year.”
She also is more comfortable. In 2013, she was a freshman swimming the 800 free relay with three seniors. Now she's a veteran of nationals, and she has an old friend in Cassano, a junior, as one of her relay teammates.
Bilko and Cassano competed against each other in high school and swam for the same club. Cassano and Baker, also a junior, joined Bilko at the national meet last year and earned All-American honors: Cassano in the 200 and 400 medley relays and Baker in the 200 and 400 free relays. The trio, along with Jank, have formed a bond that they hope will help them succeed in Indianapolis.
“We're all really close and spend a lot of time together,” Bilko said. “We're really looking forward to the experience.”
In addition to the 800 free relay — Grove City is seeded 16th — Bilko will compete in all three individual events for which she qualified. She is seeded 13th in the 1,650 free and 15th in the 500 free and 400 individual medley.
That gives her plenty of chances to erase the memory of those four-hundredths of a second. She even has her sights set on a top-eight finish in the 1,650.
Fritz isn't betting against it.
“She looks faster now,” he said, “than she did going into the conference championships.”
Chuck Curti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com.