Packers set for trip to state meet

Fleming competes

in diving preliminaries starting today

By Scott A. Kolb

Taking in their final practice of the season at the Ellis pool on Wednesday, the Austin girls on the state-bound medley relay team were in a festive mood as they celebrated Brooke Johnson’s birthday by eating cupcakes.


At the other end of the pool, Austin senior diver Courtney Fleming went over her routines off the board in preparation for her fifth and final trip to the Class A State Meet at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center in Minneapolis.

Averi Splinter, Kelli Bednar, and Helen Heimark will join Johnson on the 200 medley relay team to compete in Friday’s state preliminaries. Splinter will also swim individually in the 100 butterfly, and Johnson competes in the 100 backstroke.

Fleming competes this afternoon in the preliminaries of the diving competition. This is her fifth trip to the state meet, and she finished sixth last year.

Diving tradition

The Austin Packers have a proud history of divers doing well at the state level. Fleming is the latest state diver in a long tradition that stretches back a couple of decades.

Fleming has qualified for the state finals in each of the last two seasons. She was the runner-up in last week’s section meet.

In her first trip as an eighth-grader, Fleming placed 29th at state. She was the only eighth-grader on the state tournament roster that year. Then, she moved up to 21st place at state in her freshman season, and just missed the first cut for the finals.

During her sophomore year, Fleming made it through the first day of competition and got to dive in the championship round for an eventual 15th-place finish. Last year, she was the Big Nine Conference champ and won the section title on her way to a sixth-place showing at state and a medal.


"I’ve improved every year at state and my goal is to move up again this time," Fleming said. "The girls ahead of me will be tough competition, but I’m confident about making it back to the finals."

A tradition that was broken this year had been getting two divers to state. For her first three trips to state, Fleming went along with Shannon Doyle. Last year, Caroline Brown qualified for state and went north with Fleming, but she didn’t make it this season.

In an effort to keep the practice routine normal, Austin diving coach Jamie Leif had Brown continue her workouts with Fleming. Brown goes along on the trip to assist Fleming in her final state meet.

All of the years of diving have given Fleming resiliency as she showed last week in the section finals by making a run from fourth in the preliminaries to within a few points of repeating as the champion. A couple of weeks ago, she earned the title of True Team State Diving Champion in a meet at the U of M Aquatic Center.

"I know most of the girls at state and what they can do, so I just have to step up my performance," Fleming said. "I’m used to diving at the big arena. It’s exciting to be back at state, and I just want to do well in my final trip."

The Packers have never had a state champion in diving. There was a second-place finish by Laura Davis in the 1980s, and Doyle placed third in her final trip two years ago.

Experienced relay

Three out of the four members on the medley team are returning to state. Heimark, an eighth-grader and the anchor for the relay, is making her first trip to the state meet.


Johnson swims the backstroke in the first leg of the medley relay. Bednar follows with the breaststroke, then Splinter in the butterfly, and Heimark closes it out with the freestyle.

The three returning relay members are only sophomores, but they already know what kind of intensity it takes to compete at the state meet. Although they were in a light-hearted mood during their final tuneup, the Austin girls still showed determination as they got ready for the trip to the big city.

Ever since they swam the fastest time in the section preliminaries and then, finished as the runner-up, the Packers relay team has exuded confidence. Medals are awarded to the top eight finishers, last year the Packers didn’t make it to the championship round in the medley relay.

"We all believe in each other and we’re confident about our chances this year at state," Splinter said of the relay. "We’re shooting for a spot in the finals, and our goal is to win a medal."

Not only did Johnson get to celebrate her birthday with her teammates, but she also got in some repetitions for her individual appearance at the state preliminaries. This will be Johnson’s first individual qualification as she beat the cut time and finished third in the backstroke at the section meet.

Splinter made it into the consolation finals last year and finished 16th overall in the butterfly event. She had a couple of competitive races with Kasey Sands of Red Wing in the section, and Splinter has a good chance at making the cut this year for the finals.

Veteran coaching staff

Austin head coach Lynn Gulbrandson has been taking swimmers and divers to the state meet since 1981, and the five girls going this year only adds to that legacy.


Guiding his girls to the state meet never gets old for Gulbrandson as their youthful enthusiasm reinvigorates the veteran coach. He also had his team compete a couple of times this season at the big pool in Minneapolis, so they won’t be in awe of the surroundings at the Aquatic Center.

"This group of girls is easy to coach, they work really hard in practice and it’s a thrill to see them rewarded for that effort by qualifying for state," Gulbrandson said. "We were in the Eden Prairie Invitational and also the State True Team, so that gave the girls a couple of chances this season to swim in the pool where they hold the state meet."

Leif was a standout diver during her high school days with the Packers and has continued that success in coaching the divers. Leif has coached Fleming at various levels throughout her career. Alexa Dolan-Peterson is the other assistant coach who will help Gulbrandson as the Packers girls make their mark at state.

The Packers piled in a van early this morning and made the trek to the Twin Cities. The diving preliminaries started at noon and Fleming was placed in the middle of the 32-diver rotation. The medley relay team is in the fourth heat of Friday’s preliminaries. The swimming and diving finals are then set for Saturday.

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