Aug. 25—OTTUMWA — Sara Johnson has been in the world of swimming for several years.
On Thursday, Johnson got a new perspective on the sport. The first-year head coach of the Ottumwa High School girls swimming team, and the proud mother of state-qualifying swimmers Ava and Finley Johnson, earned her first two dual victories as the Bulldogs easily outpointed Oskaloosa (81-59) and Centerville (95-30) during a season-opening double dual at Mike McWilliams Pool.
"Seeing what a coach does and all the things that go into it, there's a lot that I didn't know and there's still a lot I don't know," Sara Johnson said. "It's going to be a season of learning. That's for sure."
Of course, Johnson will have a little help from within having her two daughters on the team. Ava Johnson, seeking to qualify for state for the fourth straight year, picked up wins for Ottumwa on Thursday in the 50-yard freestyle (26.97) and the 100-yard freestyle (59.71) while anchoring the winning 200-yard medley (2:03.28) and 200-yard free (1:52.07) relay races
"I'm excited. It's going to be a great year," Ava Johnson said. "I was aiming for 58 seconds in the 100, but I thought I did pretty good. I'm thinking that there's a good chance we can qualify again in the relay races. I'm focusing on having a fun senior year."
Finley Johnson earned two trips to state as a freshman last year as part of Ottumwa's 200 and 400-yard free relay teams. The sophomore had a successful opening night joining her older sister in the 200 medley and free relays while posting a season-opening time of 1:12.99 in the 100-yard butterfly and a runner-up time of 28.89 seconds in the 50-yard freestyle.
"I haven't swam in a meet in a couple of months, so I wasn't sure how it was going to go," Finley Johnson said. "I want to get 26-second 50 freestyle. I didn't quite reach that last year, so that's the same goal I'm setting for this year."
Both Ava and Finley Johnson have been among the biggest supporters of their mother taking over as the program's newest head coach. They've also been a big help in getting Sara Johnson prepared for the daily tasks of preparing the Bulldog girls swim team for the upcoming season.
"She makes the workouts on weekend. Finley and I look over them and adjust if needed," Ava Johnson said. "She asks for help. If there's things we think that need to be changed, she's totally open to it."
Ottumwa posted wins in eight of 11 varsity events on Thursday. Daphanie Morrison stepped in to fill the space opened by the graduation of four-year state qualifier Mac Payne to help the Johnson sisters and Willow Larsen secure the 200 free and medley relay wins while Lilly Morrison swam to victory in the 500-yard freestyle, pulling away from Oskaloosa junior Callie Walters by nearly a minute finishing in a time of 6:13.28.
Finishing fourth in the night's longest race was Ottumwa senior Hannalee Songer, completing the 10-lap race in 7:52.12. Both Morrison and Songer were right back in the pool seconds later swimming with Bulldog teammates Olivia Hoskins and Hallie Leonard producing a third-place time of 2:13.56 for Ottumwa in the 200 free relay.
"I apologized to Hannalee right after that," Sara Johnson joked. "She offered me so much grace. She wasn't mad at me at all. Those are the type of things I'm going to have to think about moving forward. It was such a small meet and there wasn't much time between races, but the girls handled it so well."
Larsen also picked up a pair of individual wins for Ottumwa on Thursday. The program's record holder in the 100-yard breaststroke claimed the victory in the same race to open her senior season in 1:11.87, just over two seconds shy of her school record time of 1:09.85 set year, after picking up a 20-second win in the 200-yard individual medley posting a time of 2:21.62.
"The times aren't quite where I want them, but in the past two weeks I've started doing mornings and nights. I've also been lifting a lot, so I'm really tired right now," Larsen said. "Hopefully, the times will continue to drop as the season goes along. I want drop my backstroke and breaststroke records. I also want to go after a few more records. I'm just not sure which ones yet. I also want to go to state in two more events this year."
Oskaloosa, thanks in part to three varsity wins including a 100-yard backstroke victory by Vivian Bolibaugh in 1:10.18 and a 200-yard freestyle win from Nora Lamb in 2:22.86, earned a split in the double dual winning 88-30 over Centerville. Brenna Whitney finished third for the Redettes in the 200-yard freestyle in 3:05.19 while Brynn Clark finished fourth in both the 50-yard freestyle (29.83) and the 100-yard freestyle (1:10.68).
"We have a pretty solid team this year. All my girls are returning," Centerville head swimming coach Amber White said. "Brynn looked strong. The back half of her 50 looked strong. The front half didn't, so we have some nerves to work out. Lexi Cox was also really strong in her backstroke (finishing fourth in 1:25.72). We've been working a lot with her on technique.
"We're looking forward to the season. Our goal is for Brynn to break a minute in the 100 free and get as close as she can to 25 seconds in the 50 free. Lexi and Brynn were managers this past season for the boys team and got to see what (Centerville's first boys state swimming qualifier) John (White) was able to do. They were there for districts and state. They're all pumped up. We're all one big family. We've got boys swimming with the girls getting them ready for the season. We're all going for it now."
— Scott Jackson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.