Though she may have been a solo act for her team at the WIAA state meet Saturday in Madison, Germantown distance swimmer Kelly Theis was hardly a lone wolf in her thinking, her actions or her results.
The determined senior with a high pain threshold joined Germantown's small but elite fraternity of state 500-yard freestyle placewinners when she took second to Middleton's Katie Delaney by just 0.09.
For some, that might have been a failure, a disaster to have come that close and missed, but for Theis, who along with her teammates, doesn't have a home pool and doesn't get to swim a home meet, it represented a success not only for herself but also for the entire Warhawks program.
She didn't place in the state meet last season and had joined Brookfield-based Elmbrook Swim Club to improve her times and give herself a better chance at a college scholarship (various Horizon League schools like UW-Milwaukee are finally taking notice).
Committed to the team
Theis also had the chance to forego her senior season with its various hassles - traveling to Homestead High School or the Schroeder Aquatic Center at off-times for practice - for a winter of steady improvement with Elmbrook. Some other high-level performers have done that this fall and in Theis' case, it would have been fully understandably.
The Warhawks were not going to come close to a conference or an invitational title and would be loaded down with a lot of young swimmers and a new coach (Kate Patterson). The incentive for Theis to stay with Germantown would have to come from within.
"It was a little bit tempting," she said of not going out, "but swimming in club and high school are two totally different things. You don't get quite the same team atmosphere, you don't build the same bonds.
"In the end, I was very happy I did high school swimming this winter. It was a great three-four months. I was happy to help keep the (Germantown) program alive, working with these girls."
Positive, passionate attitude
That attitude pleased and impressed a number of people, including legendary former Germantown swim coach Dick Zache, who is an assistant over at Elmbrook Swim Club to Theis' coach Fred Russell.
"I knew that she had that option (not to swim high school) and that the pressure was on her," said Zache, "but when I found out that she was going to swim high school, I told her that she touched my heart. I told her that you chose to sustain a program and that she's achieved great things and that she will get her just reward."
Also impressed was Germantown coach Patterson, who had been an assistant to former head coach Sara Petric (now athletic director at Franklin). Theis helped make her transition easy, Patterson said, and served as an excellent example for the freshmen and sophomore-dominated team.
"I believe the unique experience of high school swimming and the chance to swim one last time in the magical environment of the state meet outweighed any doubts she may have had," Patterson said. "Her performance on Saturday as well as the performances of the entire team this season goes to show that Germantown can still put together a quality program despite not having our own facilities."
Down to the finish
As for the race, it was an astonishing thing as Theis came out of lane two and Delaney out of lane eight, so they didn't even really see each other. Theis assumed that she was down most of the race to Delaney, when really they were in a dead heat for its entire length.
Theis had the barest of advantages (0.02 of a second) going into the final 50. She was clocked in a lifetime best of 5:00.14 while Delaney was timed in 5:00.05. Among the loud cheering section that Theis had behind her was the head coach of the North Shore champion Homestead team Mark Gwidt, at whose pool Theis and the Warhawks train.
"What a great swim that was," Gwidt said. "You've definitely got to cheer for your fellow conference competitors when they're in a race like that. How exciting for her and for Kate (Patterson)."
"When I hit the wall and looked up, I was so excited," Theis said. "I knew I'd go faster than sectional (by seven seconds), but I didn't see myself going that fast. … I know coach Zache and I know about all those great swimmers (he coached). I just never thought I'd get this far.
"This time (the past year) was the first time I really trained hard as a distance swimmer and it really paid off. I know I should be a little disappointed but it's still so exciting to go that fast."
Last year at this time, her best was a 5:13.
Zache is not at all surprised by Theis' progress.
"I've watched her develop these last 18 months," he said, "and she can do these back-to-back-to-back hard sets (in practice). She'll do that and then she'll come back the next race or the next practice and go even harder. I have to ask myself what's inside her? It's an amazing thing to watch."
In Theis' mind, its all about willpower.
"My whole philosophy is to get out fast," she said. "I know with that idea that it'll hurt at the end, but I also know I have a kick."
Like Zache said, it's an amazing thing to watch.
"It's all in her mind. Just in the way she handles things and the way she trains. … People (high-level coaches) shy away from her, but I tell them that they're making a huge mistake. She will help your program so much."
Held in high regard
Theis is the first one to admit that she's had good examples, including one Zache knows well.
Back when she was just starting out and the Seahawks Club was still around, one of her coaches was one of Zache's state 500 champs, Megan Loehndorf. Loehndorf won the last state title claimed by a Germantown swimmer back in 2001. Loehndorf's older sister Melissa won the event in 1995 and 1997 while Brandie Lauterbach claimed it 1992 and 1993.
Theis, who was also 12th in the 200 free with another best time of 1:55.86, was flattered to be included in such elite company. Like Zache said, she knows a college scholarship will come. She would like to go into the physical therapy/athletic training field.
And like her former coach Loehndorf, she's also helping lay the groundwork for swimmers by working at the Tri-County YMCA in the Falls, teaching 6- to 13-year-olds how to swim and also coaching the YMCA's club team.
That hopeful attitude carries over into her thoughts about Germantown's High School team.
"Even without a pool, even without the (now defunct) Seahawks Swim Club to build around, there are still quality swimmers coming up," said Theis. "I don't know what the future holds (for the high school program), but there is room to grow and room to become a better team."
Theis almost wins state title
The top 10 times of the 500-yard freestyle swims in Germantown history:
Top Germantown times and state finishes
1. Melissa Loehndorf, 4:57.78, 1997 (D2 state champ)
2. Melissa Loehndorf, 4:58.1, 1995 (D2 state champ)
3. Melissa Loehndorf, 4:59.78, 1996 (D2 state runner-up)
4. Kelly Theis, 5:00.14, 2010 (D1 state runner-up)
5. Brandie Lauterbach, 5:00.78, 1993 (D2 state champ)
6. Megan Loehndorf, 5:02.07, 2001 (D2 state champ)
7. Katie Scholl, 5:02.9, 1997 (D2 state runner-up)
8. Lauterbach, 5:03.04, 1992 (D2 state champ)
9. Megan Loehndorf, 5:05.12, 2000 (D1 state runner-up)
10. Megan Loehndorf, 5:05.23, 1999 (D1 state runner-up)
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