Highlands swimmer adjusts to shorter race lengths

Bill West
| Monday, Feb. 17, 2014, 10:27 p.m.

Bailey Bonnett entered her first season with Highlands' varsity swim team with an unusual dilemma.

Known as a distance swimming phenom before she even dipped her toe in the pool as a freshman this winter, Bonnett had to figure out what to do about the relative shortness of the events offered by the WPIAL and PIAA.

Fortunately for the freshman, Highlands' second-year coach Beth Brancato happens to be the most decorated sprint swimmer in Golden Rams' history.

With guidance from Brancato, a 1996 Highlands graduate, Bonnett has burst onto the WPIAL swimming scene after a medal-filled youth career in YMCA and USA Swimming events.

Through the first week of February, Bonnett held WPIAL Class AA's top time in three individual events (200 individual medley, 500 freestyle, 100 breaststroke) and was in the top four in three others (second in 100 backstroke, third in 200 freestyle, fourth in 100 freestyle), according to information compiled by Class AA coaches.

The WPIAL championships are Feb. 27-28 at the Pitt's Trees Pool, and Bonnett appears ready to start what could ultimately become a sizable collection of district titles.

Exactly how many gold medals — and whether she also can dominate in the state meet — might depend on her ability to refine the little details — strong launches off the starting block and crisp turns off the wall — that matter so much more in shorter races.

“I guess it was a little more of a challenge to try to be able to sprint,” Bonnett said. “I'm used to those long-distance events where I have more time to figure out what I'm doing instead of having to sprint. But I've adjusted well to it.”

Last March, Bonnett showcased her versatility and endurance on the way to a YMCA state championship in the 400-yard individual medley.

A month after that, at the National YMCA Short Course Championships in Greensboro, N.C., she placed 31st in the 100 breaststroke and 57th in the 200 individual medley as a 14 year old in a division that included participants as old as 18.

While the YMCA offers numerous individual events with lengths of 200 yards or more, the WPIAL presents just three: the 500 freestyle, the 200 freestyle and the 200 individual medley. Bonnett would prefer to swim a breaststroke or backstroke race that's longer than 100 yards, but she realizes she's in the minority.

Plenty of achievable goals exist for Bonnett in the shorter races, including the opportunity to break four Highlands records held by Brancato, who won a PIAA title in the 50 freestyle and claimed WPIAL crowns in the 50 and 100 freestyle.

Though a comprehensive list of Highlands' swim records likely no longer exists — Brancato said a list was taken off a wall near the gym and soon forgotten — the coach suspects Bonnett now holds all of the Golden Rams' top marks except in the 50 and 100 freestyle, the 100 butterfly and the 100 backstroke.

“This is her time — I did my thing in swimming,” Brancato, who later became a three-time All-American at Nebraska, said when asked if she's rooting for Bonnett to break her records. “Her work ethic is second to none. Any event we put her in, basically, she'll win. … She's so smart about the sport. She knows the ins and outs. She knows when things need to be fixed.”

Said Bonnett: “Beth was a really good swimmer, so it's tough to get her records. … It pushes me a little more to try to get them.”

Bonnett has encountered few challengers with abilities comparable to her own during the regular season.

That likely will change at the WPIAL championships, and Bonnett certainly will find difficult opposition if she advances to the PIAA finals.

As long as the freshman starts strong enough to stick with more sprint-minded foes for the first 50 yards or so, Brancato likes Bonnett's chances in just about any event available.

“Nobody can bring the races home like her,” Brancato said. “If it's close, she's going to win.”

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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