Girls swimming and diving: Stevenson's Kowalski prepared to make more history

  • Nora Kowalski is a state qualifier in diving for Stevenson.

    Nora Kowalski is a state qualifier in diving for Stevenson. COURTESY OF AYRTON KASEMETS

  • Milena Busma is a state qualifier in the butterfly for Stevenson.

    Milena Busma is a state qualifier in the butterfly for Stevenson. COURTESY OF AYRTON KASEMETS

  • Milena Busma is a state qualifier in the butterfly for Stevenson.

    Milena Busma is a state qualifier in the butterfly for Stevenson. COURTESY OF AYRTON KASEMETS

  • Nora Kowalski is a state qualifier in diving for Stevenson.

    Nora Kowalski is a state qualifier in diving for Stevenson. COURTESY OF AYRTON KASEMETS

  • Jennifer Chen is a state qualifier in the backstroke for Stevenson.

    Jennifer Chen is a state qualifier in the backstroke for Stevenson. COURTESY OF AYRTON KASEMETS

 
By Bill McLean
Daily Herald Correspondent
Updated 11/10/2021 6:53 AM

Stevenson senior diver Nora Kowalski is taking Anatomy, AP Calculus and AP Psychology, among other classes, this fall.

What, no History course?

 

"I prefer sciences and math," the Patriot admitted before a recent practice.

Perhaps that's because Kowalski has been too busy majoring in history -- making history, specifically -- outside the classroom throughout the 2021 girls swimming and diving season.

Kowalski, blessed with a work ethic that matches her boundless talent, won last weekend's Lake Forest sectional and secured her first state berth with a magnificent, cartoonish score of 534.05 points, supplanting the 480-point pool record held by former Deerfield star and two-time U.S. Olympian Christina Loukas.

Perspective is in order here. The state's No. 2 state qualifier during sectional weekend, Normal Community West junior Marnie Howard, captured a sectional title with a 518.3-point effort.

The state-meet mark in diving? That still belongs to Loukas, who tallied 507.55 points in 2003.

Yes, sectional judging, to many, is a different animal compared to state judging. But 534 points? The buzz generated by that result continues to crack windows.

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"Nora," Stevenson senior sprinter/butterflyer Claudia Rzeznik said," captivates me when she dives. She's powerful, smooth and fearless, and every time she dives, I see a better diver. Amazing. And Nora loves diving -- you can see that love at meets.

"I love it when she takes a few deep breaths before a big dive and then goes for it."

Kowalski's biggest dive is her inward double (degree of difficulty: 2.8), which is plunge No. 4 on her list. When spectators see her perform it at this weekend's state meet at FMC Natatorium in Westmont, they'll find it hard to believe that the Miami (Ohio) University-bound diver and Stevenson record holder for 11 dives (534.05) and 6 dives (281 points) is a first-time state qualifier.

Kowalski's freshman season ended with a 10th-place showing at a sectional; an injury sidelined her as a sophomore; and the pandemic scrubbed the state meet last fall.

"That inward double requires timing, strength, courage and confidence," Patriots diving coach and former Glenbrook North standout diver Jonathan Roby said. "Nora has all four.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I'm excited that people at a state meet will finally get to see Nora dive, will finally get to see what I've been able to see and admire for so long. It's like I've had this hidden gem for years and now I get to show it to everybody at the biggest meet of the season."

Kowalski's younger sister, Stevenson sophomore and club gymnast Meredith, was asked to give diving a try by the sisters' mother, Michelle, when she was a third-grader. Meredith declined.

"I told my mom, 'I kind of want to try diving,' " recalls Nora, an avid soccer player and fifth-grader at the time.

Nora Kowalski nearly changed her mind, before deciding to show up at Lincolnshire Swim Club for her first lesson. She caught on, immediately, and qualified for a prestigious AAU meet in the sixth grade.

Kowalski stuck with diving and joined Glenbrook Aquatics.

She's been making tiny splashes -- every diver's goal, on every dive -- ever since.

"Dynamic, powerful, athletic," Stevenson swim coach Art Kasemets said of Kowalski, aiming to become the third Patriots diving champ in program history (Kerrin Seymour, 2006 and 2009; and Jessie Mowrer, 1998). "Nora is also fun to be around, a great teammate and a great leader."

The Patriots' No. 2 diver, UMass recruit Shreeya Sinha, also has a legitimate shot at collecting a medal at state this weekend, after finishing runner-up (481.6 points, also better than Loukas' previous pool record) at the Lake Forest sectional.

Kasemets' reigning North Suburban Conference meet and Lake Forest sectional champions advanced an impressive boatload of 12 entrants, including Kowalski and Sinha and all three relays, to state.

Rzeznik anchored the 200-yard freestyle relay (1:36.56, with sophomore Hana Wienckowski, junior Izzie Gattone and senior Katie Makarska) that ranks 10th among state qualifiers and earned state berths in the 100 butterfly (56.28) and 50 free (23.99).

"I'm having more fun this season, and I'm embracing every fun moment," Rzeznik said. "I was serious, way too serious, in past seasons. I've fallen back in love with swimming."

The Pats' 400 free relay of Wienckowski, sophomore Sophia Berger and juniors Milena Busma and Abby Collins recorded the fifth-fastest time (3:30.08) on sectional weekend; and the 200 medley crew of sophomore Jennifer Chen, Busma, Collins and junior Amy Andres extended its season with a third-place sectional time of 1:46.06.

Only six other statewide sectional 100 flyers swam faster than Busma's 56.11 in the event. Stevenson's other state entrants: Makarska (200 IM, 100 breaststroke); Chen (100 back); Collins (100 back)

"One of my messages to my swimmers this week was, 'Remember, everybody has to swim in the same water,' " said Kasemets, who asked his squad to FEV (have Fun, show Energy and produce Volume) at the start of the season. "There's a tendency, for some, to look at great swimmers at other schools at put them on a pedestal.

"I told our girls, 'Don't hesitate to put yourself on one.' "

Bear up:

Former St. Viator Lion and current Lake Zurich Bear Olivia Dorshorst had a fabulous meet at last weekend's Barrington sectional, clocking first-place times in the 200 free (1:50.15) and 500 free (4:55.3). The senior ranks first among all state qualifiers in the 500 free and No. 2 in the 200 free.

Only two LZ entrants (Sophia Goushchina and Becky Martin) have earned a top-three state medal in program history; Goushchina silvered the 100 back in 2018, and Martin took the bronze in diving in 1985.

Georgia in Illinois:

Libertyville sophomore Georgia Kahler's winning time in the 100 breaststroke (1:03.77) at last weekend's Lake Forest sectional ranks fifth among state qualifiers in the event. The Wildcat also advanced to state in the 50 free (23.85, ranked No. 11) and as a member of the 200 medley (1:45.02, No. 8) and 200 free (1:36.2, No. 7) relays. Junior Sarah Wuh and sophomores Sofija Tijunelis and Logan Howard swam the other legs on both quartets.

Amen, Grace:

Reigning Lake Forest sectional 100 backstroke champion Grace Bevers, a Warren senior, swam the event faster than all but three others in the state last weekend. The Blue Devil's time of 55.66 bested the sectional's runner-up effort by nearly 1.5 seconds. Classmate Hailey Benoit (100 back, 57.61) also qualified for state.

VH 1:

Vernon Hills senior Alyse Lichtenstein emerged as the Cougars' top state qualifier at last weekend's Lake Forest sectional, totaling 458.05 points in diving. That result ranks 14th overall among state-meet boarders. VH junior breaststroker/IMer Isabella Ramos and senior flyer Emma Zhang also get to hit state water this weekend.

State baptism:

The FMC Natatorium in Westmont will serve as the site of the girls swimming and diving state meet for the first time this weekend. For decades the championships had been staged at either New Trier or Evanston.

The diving preliminaries session begins Friday at 9 a.m., followed by swim prelims at 3:30 p.m.; the swimming and diving finals segment starts Saturday at 11 a.m.

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