What better way to come back home than a police escort?
That is exactly what happened for Paige Mikesell (junior, kinesiology health and sport science), who won a national championship, and the rest of the IUP swim team.
The team traveled to Birmingham, Alabama to compete in the NCAA Division II Swimming and Diving National Championships, which were held Wednesday to Saturday.
Five IUP athletes competed throughout the week. They racked up nine individual and three relay All-American honors. The nine individuals were the most won by IUP since the 10 won in 2014.
Paige was the standout collecting a national championship in the 200-meter freestyle, seven All-American honors and five IUP records.
She was the first IUP national champion since Jackie Hynson was a national champion in 200 butterfly in 2012.
“Winning the 200 freestyle at the national championship this year was so unexpected,” Paige said. “I would have never in a million years thought I would win a title in this event, but it was such an exciting experience.
“...It was such a humbling experience, and I am just so fortunate that I was even able to compete at the championships.”
Paige finished the race with a time of 1:48.36, a school record, and just edged out Lexie Baker of Queens (N.C.), who finished in 1:48.52. Even more impressive was that Paige went into the event seeded 30th.
“As soon as we saw that my time was faster than any of those girls, everyone was screaming and cheering, and it was such an exciting moment,” Paige said. “I will never forget the happiness of that moment seeing that I won a national title out of heat two and was able to represent IUP on the podium. It was such a bittersweet moment with my teammates and coaches that I will never forget.”
She competed in six other events: the 100-yard butterfly (second place), 200-yard butterfly (second place), 200-yard freestyle relay (eighth place), 400-yard freestyle relay (10th place), 200-yard medley relay (11th place) and 100-yard freestyle (12th place). Paige’s other individual record also came in 100-meter butterfly (53.63).
Paige owed most of her success to the ones that helped her even through the struggles of this season.
“My coaches, Coach Villa and Coach Stoner, have put in countless hours of hard work to give us everything we need in order to be successful,” she said. “Without them, we would not be able to compete at this level.
“My family has supported me from the very beginning. They believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, and I know that has helped me to be successful.”
Paige’s older sister Claire (senior, kinesiology health and sport science) also competed at the championships. She collected five All-American in the 200-yard breaststroke (second place), 200-yard freestyle relay, 100-yard breaststroke (ninth place), 400-yard freestyle relay and 200-yard medley relay.
Claire was close to joining her sister with a national championship but fell short. She finished in the 200-yard breaststroke with a time of 2:14.48, which was 0.89 seconds off from standing atop the podium.
Rachel Johnson (junior, hospitality management) finished with five All-American honors which were in the 200-yard freestyle relay, 100-yard breaststroke (10th place), 400-yard freestyle relay, 200-yard medley relay and 200-yard breaststroke (15th place).
She was part of the IUP record breaking competed in the B final of the 200-yard breaststroke.
Rounding out the women’s team was Iliana Oikonomou (senior, sociology). The transfer from Miami University and originally from Greece had All-American honors in the 200-yard freestyle relay, 400 freestyle relay and 200-yard medley relay.
Johnson, the Mikesell sisters and Oikonomou also broke the school records in the 200-yard freestyle relay (1:34.14), 200-yard medley relay (1:43.28) and 400-yard freestyle relay (3:26.93). The team overall finished 13th of 29 teams, which is the best since coming in seventh in 2000.
You cannot talk about the Mikesell sisters without including Luke (freshman, criminology), their brother.
The lone male athlete representing the Crimson Hawks also collected some hardware. He earned All-American honors in the 500-yard freestyle (fourth place), where he broke the IUP record, finishing in 4:24.92. His other was in the 100-yard freestyle, which he finished in 45.08.
“I had a rough first day of racing; the anxiety and pressure of swimming my first national event was a lot to handle, while I wasn’t happy with my first swim, I valued it the most because it prepared me for the next couple of days,” Luke said. “I had a good 500, almost setting my personal best, and for my size and not being a sprinter, I had an excellent 100 (and) just fumbled my second turn.“Overall, I am happy with my performance and excited for next year.”
Being the only freshman might seem intimidating, but Luke did not see it that way.
“I wasn’t intimidated or worried by being the only freshman on the team to make it to nationals,” he said. “I was allowed to bring my roommate Blake Hendricks (freshman, pre-dental) to have someone to hang out with while we were at nationals and so that he could get a feel for what it would be like next year.”
Overall, it was a sensational performance for the team and one that they will not forget.
“Just cheering for my teammates and seeing their hard work payoff is so exciting and fun,” Paige said. “Rachel, Iliana, Claire and Luke are so hardworking and deserve every bit of success, and I am so glad they were able to do so at this meet.”
The team will be competing in two PSAC virtual meets Saturday and April 10. Their final meet of the season will be April 21 – 24 for the PSAC Swimming Championships in York, Pennsylvania.