Highlands swimmer Rachel Blackburn in position to battle it out with WPIAL’s best

Monday, December 23, 2019 | 4:33 PM

A youthful group led the Class AA girls 100-yard breaststroke at last year’s WPIAL swimming championships at Pitt’s Trees Pool.

The top 12 finishers were underclassmen.

Mt. Pleasant’s Heather Gardner, now a senior, won the WPIAL crown with a time of 1 minute, 3.92 seconds and went on to finish as the PIAA runner-up.

Freeport’s Alexis Schrecengost led a group of five freshmen in the top 12 with a third-place finish (1:07.13).

And right there near the top was Rachel Blackburn. The Highlands senior finished as the WPIAL runner-up with a time of 1:06.77, up one spot from third as a sophomore. She went on to post a lifetime-best 1:06.28 at states and place 12th.

As she enters her final varsity season, the veteran competitor with numerous high school accolades to her credit hopes to continue dropping time in her events and put herself in position to contend again with the best in the WPIAL and beyond.

“That is an amazing group of girls (in the 100 breast),” Blackburn said. “It’s really fun and competitive to swim against them. I think it will build up throughout the season. For Heather and me, it’s our senior years, and I know Lexi wants to come out and swim faster than both of us. There will be others pushing for that top spot. I have to be at my best, because I know everyone else will be.”

Blackburn’s WPIAL accomplishments last season included a sixth-place finish in the 200 IM and top-20 places as a part of both the 200 medley and 200 free relays.

She didn’t slow down in the offseason. She said she benefited from dry land and in-pool workouts several days a week with her Fox Chapel Killer Whales swim club.

Blackburn also said competition at both the Mark J. Braun Fall Classic at the Spire Institute in Ohio the weekend before Thanksgiving and the Pitt Christmas meet earlier this month gave her a good look at where she stood in her events.

“I am right where I want to be at this point in the season,” Blackburn said. “I was able to get a good idea of what I need to work on to be able to go faster. It basically comes down to doing some little things with my swims to drop more time.”

Blackburn quickly took care of qualifying marks in the 200 IM and 100 breast at Highlands’ season-opener against Armstrong last Thursday.

She also teamed with sophomores Abigail Watts and Alli Love and freshman Brenna Bonnett in the 200 medley and 200 free relays, which also qualified.

“That was a really big deal because we normally don’t get (WPIAL qualifying times) right away,” Blackburn said of the relays. “We really came together and swam well. I’m excited for that.”

Blackburn said she is looking forward to the upcoming holiday break workouts and the opportunity to keep pushing herself and her teammates to maximize yardage and be ready to swim fast for the section meets in January.

“I was comparing times from our first meet with Armstrong, and Rachel is ahead of where she was at this time last year,” Highlands coach Becca Bowman said. “We’re set up pretty good with her for what’s coming, and I am really excited to hopefully see even better results from her this year.”

Bowman said she also appreciates how Blackburn’s success and her veteran leadership help translate into positive vibes for the rest of the team.

“The other (team members) know Rachel has their backs, and they can see someone who works so hard and gets what she deserves,” she said. “She sets an example that everyone else can follow.”

As focused as Blackburn is with her expectations for her senior season, she also knows what lies ahead at the next level.

She will compete in college at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She signed on with the Division II Crimson Hawks late last month.

She will join brother Ben, a junior on the men’s team at Allegheny, in the college ranks.

“It was a big deal for me to make that decision before the season so I didn’t have that weight on my shoulders,” Blackburn said. “There was a time a couple of years ago where I didn’t think I would go to college for swimming, but things worked out well, and the hard work I put in paid off. Now, I want to go into college with my best times. I don’t want to let down.”

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. A Clearfield native and a graduate of Westminster (Pa.), he joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at the Clearfield Progress. He can be reached at mlove@triblive.com.


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