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2024 All-Area Boys' Swimmer of the Year: Garren Barker next great Maroon in line

Apr. 11—CHAMPAIGN — A year ago, Garren Barker was doing his best to shine in a shadow.

The Champaign Central freshman turned heads with top-five finishes in both his individual events at sectionals and swam on the Maroons' state-qualifying 200-yard freestyle relay. He even made The News-Gazette's All-Area Boys' Swim and Dive First Team in his first year of high school competition.

Impressive, especially for a freshman, but Barker's accomplishments took a back seat to then-senior Nolan Miller. Rightfully so, as Miller had just won a state title in the 200 freestyle and become the first three-time N-G Swimmer of the Year honoree.

This year, it was all about Barker, and Miller knew it from the start.

"Nolan kind of took me under his wing and told me I'd probably be the next one of him, so I needed to step it up this year," Barker said. "I didn't think I'd be anywhere close to him. He told me what it means to be a great team leader. He just said to keep working hard and giving 100 percent. He said it's not going to be easy. It's going to be tough. As I'm doing it, I know what he meant. It's been tough, but I'm slowly creeping up."

Barker laughed as he then talked about his plans to break some of Miller's records next year. Only it wasn't a joke.

Barker quickly rose to new heights as a sophomore, winning four gold medals at sectionals and getting his first taste of state competition as an individual. When the water settled, he'd earned his own N-G Swimmer of the Year award, setting him up to possibly become the next three-time recipient.

"He could leave an indelible mark on the program. He's got that much potential," Central coach Dave Young said of Barker. "I don't want to make a bold claim or anything, but I think he's now realizing that he has the potential to not just be a talented swimmer in central Illinois but throughout the state."

Taking it up a notchYoung added that he "certainly" believes Barker has the talent to achieve similar success to Miller, now a freshman swimming at Ohio State, and other Maroon icons. He called Barker "a freak" for his natural athletic ability — Young has seen Barker pull off "crazy, wonderful" dives at the end of some practices while not even being a diver — referencing his success in other sports.

For Barker, it's all been about work ethic. Yes, he has a natural athletic gift, but he's paired that with a willingness to work to keep getting better. That, and he's starting to embrace the holistic approach to the sport, giving more attention to his diet, mental toughness and work outside of practice.

"He went from one level his freshman year to another his sophomore year, and if he can take it to the next level next year, it's going to be really cool to see," Young said. "As a coach, I like to think any of our swimmers have the potential to do some cool stuff. With him, he's just so competitive, and he works hard. I don't think there's really any limits on what he can achieve."

And that work ethic helps the team. Of course, Barker winning race after race throughout the season racked up points for the Maroons, but it's more about what that does for everyone else on the team. Barker, Miller and the Central leaders before them proving that effort pays off is a major reason why the Maroons have won six team sectional titles in the last eight years.

"I could sit here and say you need to work hard or do this and that, but when your top swimmers come in and work hard, that means a lot more to the other kids than the coach telling them they need to work hard," Young said. "It just spreads to everybody."

Big plans in the futureBarker qualified for state in the 100 butterfly and 50 freestyle this season along with two relays. If anything, he calls himself a butterflyer, but he takes pride in staying proficient in every stroke so he can be a more well-rounded swimmer. He was actually leaning toward focusing on the backstroke rather than the freestyle as a secondary event before a late-season switch.

Barker's worst stroke is the breaststroke, but that's not to say he can't compete. At least once a week after practice, Barker would challenge Central's sophomore breaststroke specialist, Jed Elsts, to a race. More often than not, it was close. Young said he doesn't think Barker ever beat Elsts, but Barker disagreed, claiming he "let him off easy" a few times. There's that competitive nature. Either way, "It was always fun to watch."

"That was so fun," Barker said with a laugh. "At the end of practice, I just pushed a little more to like a fifth gear. Something fun off the blocks for my off event. It's also fun to race your teammates."

Elsts played a big role in helping Barker turn a weakness into somewhat of a strength, just like the rest of Barker's teammates helped him get to where he is today. He's convinced he wouldn't have been as successful as he was this season without their support.

"The team bond. It's always a team bond," Barker said of his favorite part of this season. "If I didn't have those seniors and some other sophomore friends, I honestly don't think I would have performed how I performed at sectionals."

He also credited Young for improving his mentality. Barker is just a sophomore, bearing the weight of Miller's dubbing of him as the next great Central swimmer, but Young has helped free his mind. He's helped him focus on having fun, suppress the stress and realize he still has half of his high school career to grow into what's expected of him.

And for Barker, those expectations are lofty.

"I don't think I have any limits with it. I guess that's up to me and how bad I want it," Barker said. "I have some plans for next year, like state titles. There's still a lot of work to do. I've shifted my mindset from a sophomore who just wanted to win sectionals to a junior who's not even worried about sectionals anymore. We're shifting that mindset to state."