Hierarchy was determined for the Whitlock family Friday night in a process that left mom, dad, son and daughter soaking wet and a little bit breathless.
They weren’t alone. More than 120 people — ranging in age from 5 to 83, some of them fast, some of them not — took turns diving into the Service High pool for the third annual Aqua Dog 50-yard Free Sprint Tournament.
It was a fast-paced, entertaining meet with nearly nonstop action — 80 heats in three hours of competition. As soon as one group of swimmers climbed out of the pool, another group climbed onto the starting blocks.
“It’s the only meet I know of like this,” said men’s champion Caleb Law, a Service High senior who raced nine times — twice in the preliminaries, five times in the round-robin finals, once in the semifinals and once in the finals.
“I love racing everyone. It’s my favorite meet of the year.”
The Aqua Dog format allows people to choose who they race against during preliminaries, so all four of the Whitlocks competed in one of the 50-yard heats. For them, the family-friendly meet was the perfect setting for a friendly family rivalry.
The Whitlocks have a strong connection to Anchorage swimming — James, 38, and Krista, 37, were both Northern Lights Swim Club members when they first met as teenagers at a meet at UAA. Now their children — Ian, 12, and Tevin, 10 — belong to the Northern Lights Swim Club.
Krista’s last race before Friday night was some 20 years ago when she swam for Service High. Ian and Tevin, meanwhile, are relatively new to competitive swimming but they caught on fast and are getting faster.
“If we’re going to beat them,” Krista said, “this is our last year to do it.”
Fifty yards later, James came through for the older generation with a swift time of 27.24 seconds. Then came Ian (35.51), followed by Krista (36.26) and Tevin (37.36).
A grinning James acknowledged that his reign won’t last long. “It’s short-lived,” he said, well-aware that one or both of the kids will catch up to him soon enough.
A number of the preliminary heats pitted parents against children, brothers against sisters and coaches against students.
Some featured swimmers at opposite ends of the age spectrum, including one with a 75-year age range: 83-year-old Margret Van Flein, 79-year-old Jon Nauman, 77-year-old Diane Mohwinkel, 9-year-old Matthew Wisdom and a pair of 8-year-olds, Jocelyn Williams and Nora Fawcett. In the last of the 44 preliminary heats, Fawcett was the winner in 54.78 seconds, followed closely by Van Flein in 55.46.
Van Flein, who lives in Fairbanks, said she was in her 40s when she learned to swim.
“I just did it because my husband had health issues, and (swimming) was good for him,” she said. “I was very slow at the beginning. I could just do the breaststroke, very slowly.”
At the time Van Flein was dealing with back pain, and swimming made the pain go away. Before long she dipped her toe into competitive swimming, and at the 2015 National Senior Games, she captured the bronze medal in the 50-yard breaststroke in the women’s 80-84 age group. She said she hopes to return to the national championships in the summer of 2020, when she’ll be 85 and in a new age group.
“I know at my age it’s very healthy for me — and at my age, it’s getting to be an accomplishment to be alive and still moving,” Van Flein said.
For her two races Friday, she started in the pool rather than diving in from the starting blocks. Using the freestyle stroke, she twice met her goal of finishing in 55 to 56 seconds.
Van Flein said she has experienced three stages of motivation as a swimmer.
“The first stage, I wanted to get faster,” she said. “The second stage, you suddenly realize that maintaining the speed is my goal, until you realize you can’t maintain it, so now my motivation is ‘keep moving, keep moving,’ and the speed is secondary.”
There was plenty of speed on display Friday, especially once the field was narrowed to the six men and six women with the fastest preliminary times. Then came a series of round-robin duels, followed by two semifinal duels to determine the two finalists.
In the men’s competition, the fastest race came in one of the semifinals when Law, 18, took on East High graduate Shawn Wooten, 26. Wooten used big, powerful strokes to make it an exciting race but Law pulled out the victory in 21.02 seconds — a sliver ahead of Wooten’s 21.09.
In the finals, Law took on Service High teammate Brian Jarupakorn and clocked a time of 21.96 to beat Jarupakorn’s 22.54 and repeat as the Aqua Dog champion.
“I didn’t have a lot left,” Law said, “but I had to beat him because he’s one of my best friends
In the women’s competition, South High’s Summer Cheng beat Bartlett High coach Lauren Langford in the semifinals and West High graduate Bret Congdon in the finals. By winning it all, she dethroned twin sister Aubrey Cheng — last year’s winner who lost to Congdon in this year’s semifinals.
Cheng swam a time of 25.13 to beat Congdon, just minutes after swimming 25.20 to beat Langford.
“Very, very exhausting,” she said of her nine-race night. “I had nothing left but I had to keep telling myself to not let that get into my head.”
For their victories, Law and Cheng received big championship belts akin to those awarded to champion fighters. The others who advanced to the round-robin competition took home colorful dog collars — a nod to the event’s title, which in turn is a nod to the Iron Dog and the Iditarod sled dog race.
In keeping with the spirit of the Iditarod, the Aqua Dog awards red swim caps to the male and female swimmers with the slowest times — “Like the Red Lantern,” said Cliff Murray, the Northern Lights Swim Club coach who helped run the meet. The winners, 5-year-old Zachary Kemp and 77-year-old Diane Mohwinkel, earned just as much respect as the fastest swimmers.
“I think about how that could be me someday, swimming when I’m 80,” Cheng said. “That’s the beauty of the sport — you can do it at any age.”
3rd annual Aqua Dog 50 Free Sprint Tournament
Men’s final — Caleb Law 21.96 seconds, Brian Jarupakorn 22.54.
Men’s semifinals — Law 21.02, Shawn Wooten 21.09; Jarupakorn 22.54, Nathaniel Adams 22.94. (Wyatt Adams and Alexander Emili also advanced to round-robin competition but not to the semifinals.)
Women’s finals — Summer Cheng 25.13, Bret Congdon 25.58.
Women’s semifinals — S. Cheng 25.20, Lauren Langford 26.06; Congdon 25.36, Aubrey Cheng 25.41. (Madeline Bingham and Kasey Romspert also advanced to round-robin competition but not to the semifinals.)
Age group winners
Girls 10 and under — Zoe Zipsir 33:50.
Girls 11-12 — Paula Morales 28.72.
Girls 13-14 — Joscelyn Barrette 27.19.
Girls 15-16 — Aubrey Cheng 25.56.
Girls 17-18 — Madeline Bingham 26.97.
Women 19-20 — Bret Congdon 25.34.
Women 30-34 — Lauren Langford 26.48.
Women 35-39 — Signe Pignalberi 28.24.
Women 40-44 — Amber Stull 32.58.
Women 45-49 — Jolie Johnsen 29.61.
Women 60-64 — Jennifer Wingate 34.39.
Women 75-79 — Diane Mohwinkel 1:01.12.
Women 80-84 — Margret Van Flein 53.90.
Boys 10 and under — Aaron Fowler 35.50.
Boys 11-12 — Preston Kwon 27.20.
Boys 13-14 — Andrew Billings 24.15.
Boys 15-16 — Brian Jarupakorn 22.30.
Boys 17-18 — Caleb Law 21.85.
Men 19-20 — Lucas Wito1 22.86.
Men 21-22 — Nathaniel Adams 21.61.
Men 23-24 — Alexander Emili 22.35.
Men 25-29 — Shawn Wooten 21.47.
Men 35-39 — James Whitlock 27.24.
Men 40-44 — Brian Pinkston 25.96.
Men 45-49 — Kent Hamilton 25.99.
Men 50-54 — Bob Price 31.58.
Men 60-64 — David Wigglesworth 31.40.
Men 75-79 — Jon Nauman 1:21.52.