By Jeff Nations
WINCHESTER -- Sherando High School senior swimmer Kelsey Dingman had a few parting words for her coach just before lining up for her final race.
Dingman, taking her stroll across the pool deck during introductions for the 200-yard freestyle at the Class 4A state swim meet, stopped Warriors coach Joe Knight dead in his tracks with a reminder.
"Kelsey came parading by and she said, 'You know, this is my last high school meet and my last high school race,' and it was," Knight said. "And she saved the best for last."
That is hard to fathom, considering how good Dingman has been for so long. The senior had already posted a pair of fourth-place state finishes in her individual events, the 50-and 100 free, and swam the butterfly leg on Sherando's seventh-place 200 medley relay.
By the time she delivered her parting message to Knight, Dingman had already swam seven events that day at the Christiansburg Aquatic Center. If anyone had a right to slack off, it was Dingman.
"We got off to a great start and we were swimming with all the other teams in the final heat, and then we started to drop back slowly," Knight said. "Kelsey was our anchor on that. When she dove in the pool, we were eighth. She was just so determined. I never will forget that race.
"She swam a great split. She caught girls going down to the wall. She caught a girl coming off the wall, and we ended up finishing fifth in that race. And it was another one of those instances where if we'd had another five to 10 feet, she would have passed two more girls and we would've finished higher. She just flat-out gave it her all."
That's vintage Dingman, all right, and capped a high school career that earned her The Northern Virginia Daily's 2013-2014 Girls Swimmer of the Year honor. It's the third straight award for Dingman.
"I qualified for states pretty early in the season, which I expected to," Dingman said. "My training, I think I started out pretty strong. I wanted to put more work into it this year. But I don't know if that really worked out.
"Once I got into swimming for two teams, it kind of died down a little bit. I didn't practice as much as I wanted to and I didn't practice as hard as I wanted to, but it all worked out. I did what I felt I could do. I tried my best."
Her best was better than most. Dingman helped the Warriors go unbeaten during the regular season, and claimed individual titles in both the 50 free and 100 free at the Conference 21 meet. She followed up a week later by winning both events again at the 4A North Region meet, prepping for one final run at state competition.
Dingman got a bit of extra motivation in the form of a gift from her mom.
"I was really excited wear my new suit and I think that really helped," Dingman said. "I had a brand-new kneeskin that my mom paid quite a bit of money for, and I was really excited to wear it. I think that motivated me a little bit more."
Dingman said she knows some swimmers hold off a bit in preliminaries to save something for the finals.
"I don't trust myself to do that," Dingman said. "I put everything I have into the prelims."
She clocked a personal-best 24.67 seconds in the 50 free prelims to qualify for the championship finals, then did it again with another personal best (55.87) in the 100 free prelims after helping the Warriors reach the 200 medley relay finals. Both her 50 and 100 free finishes set new school records in those events.
"After my 100 free in prelims, I kind of broke down a little bit," Dingman said. "I was exhausted, but then I was crying and really upset -- I was freaking out. Then I realized I only had one more race left then I could go and take a nap and recover for the evening."
Dingman was up for that final race of the morning session, anchoring the Warriors' 200 free relay that also consisted of Brenna Sharp, Brianna English and Laura Ferguson -- the same group as the 200 medley relay -- to a spot in the championship finals in that event.
In the championship finals, Dingman turned in strong times in the 50 (25.09) and 100 (55.87) to take fourth in both of her individual events.
"We had high expectations and high hopes for her going into the state meet, and she did, too," Knight said. "We'd always talked about the potential that if things went exactly right and exactly her way at a state meet, she could be a state champion. This year we ran into three very, very tough girls that came out of the Region 4A South."
Dingman, who'd shifted to the butterfly late in the season to let Ferguson take the free stroke in the 200 medley relay, helped that team finish seventh (1:59.16).
Then came the finale, when Dingman's blistering final leg in the 200 free relay helped Sherando tie Woodgrove for fifth in the state with a time of 1:46.07.
It was a powerful exclamation point on Dingman's high school career. Next year, she'll be swimming for one of two schools she's narrowed down to for college.
"I'm going to miss it," Dingman said. "I'm definitely going to come back and visit."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>