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The unity of Missoula high school swimming

Hailey Jacobson summed up what I was feeling pretty well with one sharp observation at the University of Montana’s Grizzly Pool recently.

“You probably can’t even tell who we all are with just our black suits,” the Missoula Hellgate senior swimmer said.

This was last Saturday and I was at the pool working on a feature story on Hailey and her Missoula Aquatic Club teammate Kate Zimmer, a Big Sky High swimmer. But tracking them down was a bit tougher than I’d imagined.

That’s because at a Missoula high school swim meet rivals from Hellgate, Big Sky and Sentinel are anything but. They’re more like teammates playing for different sides.

“You can kind of tell there’s not Hellgate sitting all together off in a corner, Sentinel sitting together in a corner, Big Sky in another corner,” Jacobson continued in our conversation. “We’re all mixed together.”

Montana high school swimming isn’t like that of almost any other MHSA sanctioned athletic endeavor. All three Missoula schools, four if you count Loyola Sacred Heart’s co-op with Big Sky, basically fall under one umbrella and under one coach.

They practice together; they travel together; they compete together.

And on this day when the Missoula schools hosted those from Kalispell and Bigfork, they mingled together and confused the bajeezes out of me. Whether by design or not, the vast majority of swimmers wore the same black one-piece suits with a swim cap of either black or dark blue shading — practically the same color from across a 25-yard pool.

Once I got over the frantic state of trying to track down the right two girls in a sweltering room in which the dozens of competitors ebbed and flowed from place to place, the whole set up became quite warming in itself. Not the aquatic “Where’s Waldo?” game, no, the unity behind it.

“The Missoula high school team is really like the main team. We are super close,” Jacobson confirmed.

And it makes sense. The hard-core performers among them really are teammates, either with the MAC or Missoula YMCA Swimming. So why should it be any different during the high school season?

And it turns out it plays to their benefit, said Helena Houlihan, the woman tasked with serving as head coach for Missoula’s team(s).

“Hanni (Leach) or Kate or Hailey wouldn’t be doing as well if they didn’t have each other or all the other girls pushing them in practices,” Houlihan told me, using some of her top swimmers as a reference point.

So that explains how these girls got so good.

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