With home pool closed, Highlands swimming performing at high level

Tuesday, January 25, 2022 | 9:42 AM

There’s no place like home, as they say.

But, to Highlands’ swimming team, right now, there simply is no home.

A major challenge hit the Highlands program this year, one that drastically altered the way the team prepares and competes. The school’s pool began leaking and could cost up to $160,000 for long-term repairs.

But, luckily, generosity struck from some of their neighbors, allowing the Golden Rams to compete in the 2021-22 season.

Burrell and Valley high schools offered to host us for practices at Burrell and swim meets at Valley,” assistant coach Derek Christopher said. “They called out to us before we called out to them. We’re very happy that they were that generous.

“We’ve had some setbacks with timing, but our kids enjoy coming to practice.”

Highlands has 18 swimmers on the roster, 11 boys and seven girls.

“Three of them are international students who came in to try out swimming in their first year,” Christopher said of the students who are part of American Field Service, a foreign exchange program that has brought several students from overseas to the Natrona Heights school. “Two have picked it up quickly, and they’re all doing a great job.”

The boys team is led by junior Aidan Ochoa, who finished sixth in both the 100-yard butterfly and 100 backstroke in last year’s WPIAL championships.

“He’s deeply involved in swimming,” Christopher said of Ochoa, who moved from Arizona to Western Pennsylvania a couple of years ago. “Swimming is everything to him. He gets in the pool, and he’s a great swimmer.

“He wants to get his WPIAL cuts and he wants to go to states. He wants to be in the Olympics. That seems to be the drive for him.”

Also helping the boys team is one of the Golden Rams’ international students, senior Kalle Lammert, who is from Norway.

“He came in not knowing how to swim at the beginning of the year,” Christopher said. “He has picked it up and surprised us all with his natural ability.”

Also impressing Christopher on the boys team has been Cian Digna and Tim Seagrif, as well as team captain Justin Do.

“He’s one of the kids who brings life to the team,” Christopher said of Do. “He’s constantly making everyone laugh.”

A familiar name in WPIAL swimming paces the girls side.

Sophomore Brenna Bonnett is following in the footsteps of her sister, Bailey, who holds multiple WPIAL records and a PIAA breaststroke record. Bailey Bonnett is in her fifth year at Kentucky, is a U.S. Olympic Trials qualifier and has won five bronze medals in the SEC.

“She’s great, and she loves the breaststroke,” Christopher said of Brenna Bonnett, who qualified for the WPIAL meet in the breaststroke last season. “She comes from a swimming family, and she puts in the time.

“She swims at the Allegheny Valley YMCA with her aunt coaching. She’ll come to practice at Highlands, go home for 30 minutes and go straight to (Allegheny Valley YMCA) practice and swim 10,000 yards a day. Determination is what stands out for Brenna.”

Bonnett is supported by another international student, German Anjulie Mojk, a senior who has embraced the 100-yard backstroke, despite some early doubts.

Christopher, as well as the program’s head coach Rebecca Bowman, are pleased with the development they are seeing both in and out of the pool.

While they want to win medals and qualify for the district and state meets, they also take pride in the individual growth they see from swimmers of all calibers, especially during obstacles like covid-19 and the uncertainty surrounding their home pool.

“They’re trying out events that may not be the ones they want to do, but they’re enjoying them,” Christopher said. “They push themselves. I can’t say anything greater about the kids. They love what they do, and I’m glad that they do, because we’re having a great year.”


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