Mercy swimmers thrive on pressure, unity to earn state championship

Farmington Hills Mercy girls swimmers successfully defended their title as Michigan state Division 1 swim and dive champions. It was the 10th state championship in the school’s history. (Photo by Wright Wilson | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Who is the face of the state champion Farmington Hills Mercy swim team?

“That’s a good question,” said coach Mike Venos. “We don’t really have the top-end swimmers, so no one really stands out. I think you’d probably have to say it’s the Marlin.”

The Michigan High School Athletic Association’s Division 1 girls’ swimming and diving championships, held Nov. 16-17 at Eastern Michigan University, may have been the most exciting finals competition ever. Several schools had a shot at winning the overall championship and the meet seemingly produced a different team leader with each passing event.

While the other contenders hiked up their point totals with first- and second-place finishes, Mercy kept pace, seemingly in the background. The Marlins had plenty of qualifiers for the championship and consolation heats, yet the team never finished better than third in any event.

“We knew we did not have the star power to match a lot of the other teams,” Venos said. “If we were going to make a run at it, we were just going to have to have as many people score points as we could. Our approach was ‘We’ve got a shot, we need to take care of business; let’s just swim our best and see what happens.’”

Mercy got a boost after Annette Dombkowski, Kylie Goit and Lindsey Case all finished in the top nine of the 500 freestyle. When the meet came down to the final race – the 400 freestyle relay – there were six teams in the hunt for the team title. The Marlins entered the last event tied with Brighton at 179 points apiece.

Interestingly, Venos said his girls sensed that type of scenario and were mentally prepared.  

“The girls were talking before the meet and they figured out that this could come down to the 400 relay, and I said, ‘Let’s get there, first.’ Then before the final event, I went over them and said, ‘Do you guys want to know what’s going on? We’re tied’ — and they didn’t bat an eye. When they saw that, they knew it was game on.”

The Marlins’ relay team, made up of Goit, Courtney Connolly, Julia Coffman and Greta Gidley, didn’t win the race. However, Gidley had a strong enough performance on the anchor leg, passing Brighton to get into third place while the Bulldogs finished fourth. The resulting two-point swing was enough for Mercy to clinch the team championship, 211-209, and that was typical of how this team operates.

“Our team really came together. We relied on our sportsmanship and cheering everybody on. Our team morale really stood out to me,” said team captain Francesca Schena. “In that final race, I’ve never seen a cheer that loud. But that is part of the Mercy pride. We knew we had to beat a certain team and get a certain place, and it was really cool watching us catch up and pass them.”

While the homestretch was nerve-wracking, Venos said he wouldn’t prefer it any other way.

“In that type of meet you really get the athletes to step up and shine,” he said. 

“We really weren’t keeping track of score. We knew if we swam the way we were capable of swimming, we knew we could take it.”

What kind of an effort did it take? Going into the weekend’s championships, the relay team’s best time was 3:35. The quartet dropped that mark to 3:30 in Friday’s preliminary round, and touched the wall at 3:27.97 in the finals.

“Out of the 18 girls we took to the state meet, I would have felt comfortable with any one of them on the end of the relay. They all performed so well under pressure,” Venos said.

While the Marlins were somewhat under the radar while in the pool, they’re very noticeable on the deck — not just because of their cheering, but because of their distinctive hockey jerseys they wear as warm-ups. This year, the girls also pinned a pink looped ribbon to their jerseys, in honor of Mia Hart, mother to two former Mercy swimmers (Moira and Kylie), who lost her three-year battle with breast cancer Tuesday before the state meet.

“In honor of her we did the pins, and also warmed up in pink swim caps,” Schena said. “We wanted them to know they have our support. That’s typical of the camaraderie we have on this team, and how that grew and how we worked together throughout the entire season is very special to me as a leader.”

“The girls were all pretty tight,” Venos added. “That’s why their parents send them to Mercy — not only the faith aspect, but how they come together and understand what their priorities are and what is important. At a time like this, they help each other through.”

Mercy has won plenty of state swimming titles throughout its rich history — this was the Marlins’ eighth since 2007. But this one will be hard to top, according to Venos.

“Coaches love team efforts,” he said. “It’s a hard interview to give when someone wants to talk to your superstar, and you want to pull 35 girls over. This is a dream team.”