A heavy heart didn’t slow Emily Watkins down at the Kentucky Y Competitive Swim League State Championships this weekend.
Watkins, competing for the hometown Barracudas, won all six of her events to earn high-point honors in the Girls 13-14 age group at the Ashland Area YMCA pool.
Her performance helped keep Ashland in the thick of a nip-and-tuck battle with Beaumont Y of Lexington for the overall championship.
Watkins posted first places in four individual events — 200-yard backstroke, 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle and 100 backstroke — as well as the 200 freestyle and 200 medley relays. She was swimming for more than herself and her team.
“My grandfather (Richard Kazee) passed away a few days ago,” said Watkins, an eighth-grader at Verity Middle School. “He was always proud of me. He always said, ‘Be one with the water.’ That really helped me.”
Emily did not attend the funeral service Saturday morning on the middle day of the state meet.
“I think he would have wanted me to swim,” she said. “I’m a lot like him. I’m really musical. I play a few instruments, just like him.”
Coming in, Watkins didn’t feel like she stood out on the heat sheet in her division.
“I think two girls were in front of me,” she said.
But the 14-year-old swam with extra incentive and finished with the maximum 28 points.
Watkins was proudest of her effort in the 200 backstroke. During her younger days with the team, Watkins looked to former Ashland Y star Erin Frye as a role model. Frye is finishing up an outstanding collegiate career at University of Cincinnati.
“Erin told me I would be a backstroker,” Watkins recalled. “When I was little, I always laughed at her because I didn’t like the backstroke. She said you are going to like it because you are a little me.”
Now, says Barracudas coach Ryan Ferguson, many of the younger girls in the program are looking up to Watkins.
Ashland Area Y hosted the KYCSL state meet for the 13th time in 15 years.
“It’s really nice,” Watkins said. “When you have to drive to a multi-day meet, it can be tiring. To have it here is really convenient for us. You know where everything is.”
Before this year, AAY’s best finish in the state championships was fourth place.
This time, the title was up for grabs until the last few events. Beaumont Y of Lexington squeezed past the local team 727-704 to take home the first-place trophy for the sixth straight year.
“It was back and forth the whole meet,” Ferguson said. “We would take the lead, then they would take the lead. The competition was awesome. I’ve been to meets that were that close, but we weren’t involved. It was a lot of fun.”
Ferguson paced up and down the pool deck, exhorting his swimmers Sunday afternoon as the end of the meet drew near.
“I am very animated,” Ferguson said. “I was trying to encourage them. You can tell that I’ve lost some of my voice.”
The AAY Barracudas finished nearly 250 points ahead of third-place R.C. Durr Family YMCA from northern Kentucky in the nine-team field.
“Oh my gosh,” Ferguson said. “I can’t even describe how proud I am of this team. They put in a lot of hard work this season.”
The Ashland team, including Morehead as a satellite program, had 76 swimmers competing. Beaumont came in with 111.
“Our kids swam as hard as they could,” Ferguson said. “They did their best, as their time drops show. Not only were they placing well, but they had a lot of personal bests.”
AAY won three age groups — Girls 13-14, Girls 7-8 and Boys 9-10. Individually, Josh Daniels, Reece Pennington and Kendall Dodgion joined Watkins as high-point winners.
Daniels won all four of his individual events in the Boys 11-12 group — 50 freestyle, 50 butterfly, 500 freestyle and 100 freestyle.
“I improved all of my times except the 50 free that stayed the same,” said Daniels, whose mother, Jennifer, is a volunteer assistant coach.
A seventh-grader at Russell Middle School, Josh already has planned his career course. His goal is to swim for the University of Texas and become a cardiologist.
“It started since I think I was 10 years old,” he said. “We went to the NCAA men’s (swimming) championships at Ohio State. Texas scored 580 points. I said that’s one of the greatest teams around. That’s where I want to go.”
Daniels described the Barracudas’ runner-up finish as “amazing.”
“Coach Ferguson has put a great amount of effort into working with the team,” Daniels said. “He said even if we didn’t come in first, it was still our greatest finish ever at the state meet.”
Parker Touchton, high-point runner-up in the Boys 15-18 group, and several teammates tossed Ferguson into the pool after the awards ceremony.
The meet marked the end of Touchton’s outstanding Y swimming career. He heads to Asbury University in the fall.
Touchton won the 400 individual medley, 200 butterly and 500 freestyle during the weekend. He placed fourth in the 200 backstroke.
“A good meet, a good way to go out,” is how Touchton put it. “We have a lot of good swimmers coming up on this team. I’m looking forward to seeing how they keep improving.”
Dodgion, an 8-year-old from Ironton, won all four of her individual races and both relays in age 7-8 competition. She dropped time in all events.
“I try to push myself every day and it really paid off,” Dodgion said.
Pennington was the Boys 7-8 points leader, including wins in the 100 individual medley, 25 freestyle and 50 freestyle. He was runner-up in the 25 backstroke.
ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2671.