As Lily Milner got onto the starting block at the Class AA state swim meet in Great Falls on March 6, she felt like she had a target on her back. The Flathead High School junior was the top seed in the 100-freestyle, as well as the defending state champion.
“I knew I was the one to beat; I was the one everyone was chasing,” Milner said the week following the state meet. “It was nerve wracking up to the start.”
When the starting command sounded, Milner dove into the pool and powered through the water. As a self-described front-half swimmer, Milner is known for going out super fast and holding on during the last stretches of races. Her lead going into her first turn in the 25-yard pool fit that narrative.
But Milner didn’t let up for a single stroke during the second half of the race. A winter spent working on endurance and power was on display against a competitive field for the first time all season.
Her outstretched hand hit the touchpad in 50.98 seconds, and she lifted her head from the water to watch her competitors finish.
“It was almost like time slowed down,” Milner said. “I just tried to sit there and enjoy the moment of everyone coming in to the wall. It was pure relief.”
For Milner, time slowed for nearly three full seconds.
“It’s like the water just moves out of her way,” Flathead swim Coach Karen Bouda said. “It wasn’t even close.”
Milner capped off her weekend with a win in the 100-backstroke as well, making the junior a double-double state champion.
The same day Milner was crushing the competition in Great Falls, a similar scene was unfolding in Polson at the Class A-B meet.
Ada Qunell, a junior at Whitefish High School, completed the second defense of her title in the 200 IM and also won the 500-freestyle.
In addition to the short high school season, both swimmers train together with the Glacier Aquatic Club under the guidance of Major Robinson.
“A lot of these kids who really want to be bigger and better and want to swim in college get to swim year round with the club,” Robinson said. “Swimming is a sport that just builds on itself year after year, and the girls have been really consistent the last couple of years — now they’re getting to the point where they’re competitive, pretty close, at the national level.”
Qunell and Milner both started swimming when they were around 8 years old, and caught the competitive bug when they got their first exposure to meets outside of Montana.
“That’s when I realized swimming was something I could do beyond high school,” Qunell said. “I saw it as an opportunity to go to college and get a scholarship.”
Since tapping that competitive mindset, neither swimmer has let up. Qunell cruised to her first 200-IM title as a freshman, winning by 15 seconds, and Milner was a close runner-up in the 100-freestyle the same year.
“After getting second as a freshman, I wanted to be on top of the podium so badly,” Milner said, reflecting on her first state title that took a full second off her personal best time to win. “Last year I had no idea what I was getting myself in to … I did not expect to win like that.”
This year’s early March state meet was the first time Montana swimmers competed in a non-virtual format, which brought out top performances from all swimmers.
“It’s been hard trying to compete, since it’s not as competitive to essentially do a time trial,” Qunell said. “You have to be really self-motivated to push yourself in the pool every day.”
“It was really weird because we would just ‘race’ at practice,” Milner said. “So I’d go to swim club practice, then go to high school practice but it would be a meet. It was a real challenge to get in the competitive mindset when you were just in the pool by yourself.”
A year ago, Milner and Qunell were dealt a devastating blow when the Western Region Spring Sectional meet was canceled the night before they were supposed to leave. This year they’ll get the chance to travel to Phoenix to compete with approximately 900 of the best swimmers in the Western U.S.
“It will be really fun to race people who are within 1/100th of a second of my time and push me,” said Milner, who enters the meet ranked 22nd in the 100-freestyle. “And it’ll be even nicer having Ada going with me. Having a friend and someone there to cheer you on, it’s just great to have a rock through the whole thing because it can be very daunting.”
“First and foremost, we want to walk in and have them go best times,” Robinson said. “That’s the ultimate goal. And that, along with making finals, will raise the stake in the college recruiting game and let them prove themselves.”
As juniors, the college recruiting process is just starting.
“It’s exciting being able to speak to coaches and realize I can swim at this level,” Milner said. “It’s a little overwhelming at times, but I’ve been working for this and I’m starting to move up.”
Before they make it on the collegiate stage, both swimmers have a little more history to make on the Montana scene.
According to the MHSA archives, fewer than 30 swimmers have become three-time state champions in a single event, including Qunell, and only eight have won four in a row. Both Qunell and Milner aim to etch their names on those lists next year.
“Both have seen that consistency and hard work go a long way. They’ve had big drops this year, but they’ve had consistent drops through the years,” Robinson said. “They want to swim, they want to be good at it and they have the natural ability to be really successful at it.”
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