There’s nothing outwardly threatening about Preston Ring, the Whitefish High School senior with an easy smile, “goofball” nature and carefree mindset befitting his ski-town roots.
But in the pool, there’s almost no one scarier.
Ring is one of the fastest freestylers in Montana, as talented as any male swimmer to come out of the Flathead Valley in the last decade, and the owner of an on-and-off switch that allows him to transform from mild-mannered student to runaway two-time state champion — and counting.
“He shows up and when it’s game time, he’s ready to go,” Major Robinson, Ring’s club coach, said. “He’s got a pretty good competitive edge.”
It was not long ago, however, that Ring was far from a feared competitor. He started swimming competitively in sixth grade and at one of his first meets had to hop out of the pool midway through a 200-yard race. Even when he started finishing races and posting faster and faster times, he still looked up at a pair of contemporaries who were shattering records and piling up state championships.
“Jamie Bouda (Flathead), he was always really scary to race,” Ring said. “There was also Colton Babcok (Columbia Falls). I did not like racing him.”
Bouda and Babcock have since graduated and are both now Division I college swimmers, and into their void stepped Ring, even though he said the newfound sensation of being the top dog in the state was “weird.”
“Like two years ago I started noticing that I was scoring higher and I was like, ‘That’s pretty cool,’” Ring said. “Then people at swim meets, they’d come up to you and be like, ‘Oh, darn, I’m racing you.’”
Ring won the Class A state title in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle last year, each by a wide margin, and is a virtual lock to do so again this year, barring an injury. But he’s not just the fastest swimmer from a small school (Class A is the smallest classification in Montana boys swimming, and there are just five total teams). Ring’s title-winning 50 free time of 21.96 seconds was better than any swimmer, regardless of classification, at the 2019 state meet, and his 100 free (48.65) was third-fastest, just .64 seconds slower than the Class AA champion. So far this season, his best 50 (22.17) and 100 (49.65) times are second and first in the state, respectively, and his remarkable consistency gives him an air of invincibility at meets around the state.
“It’s attention to detail,” first-year Whitefish coach Christian Ramsey said of his star pupil. “He doesn’t swim sloppy; he swims it right each time … He makes it look beautiful every single time.”
Ring began his career with the Wave Ryders swim team based out of The Wave in Whitefish, where Babcock was one of his teammates, but he moved south to the Kalispell Aquatic Team (KATS) as a sophomore and began working with Robinson, who Ring credits for pushing him to go even faster.
“He’s a very, very talented kid; you could see that right away,” Robinson said. “They did a very good job getting him good in Whitefish … He was honestly kind of a gift to come down to me.”
Ring moved to KATS in part because the program had more older swimmers at that time, and it didn’t hurt that one of his teammates there was Bouda, who holds the state’s 50 free all-class record (Babcock owns the state record in the 100 free). Ring counts both Babcock and Bouda as friends, but unlike those two he has no plans, at least for the time being, to swim at the college level. Instead, he wants to put a bow on his competitive career by helping his teammates make a little history of their own later this season.
Whitefish has never won a state championship in boys swimming, and despite finishing fifth out of five teams a year ago, Ring and Ramsey both believe a title is within their reach this year. Apart from Ring, Logan Botner, Nick Starring and Jack McDaniel give the Bulldogs good reach across a number of different events and a shot at major points in the relays as well.
Botner, Starring and McDaniel also give Whitefish a chance to remain at the top of the state beyond this season. All three are underclassmen and, Ramsey said, have a terrific role model both in and out of the pool in Ring.
“It’s an asset, having someone at that speed, at that skill level,” Ramsey said. “Even our freshmen coming in, they’re asking, ‘What do I have to do to swim times like Preston?’”
“(And) he’s just a social, friendly kind of guy. Making it a fun environment is even more valuable than the strategy side.”
The all-class state swim meet is Feb. 14-15 in Great Falls.