By Reagan Hoverman
River Falls High School junior swimmer Ellery Ottem finished in fourth place overall in both the 100-yard and 200-yard freestyle events at the WIAA Girls State Swimming and Diving Championships on Saturday, Nov. 13, in Waukesha South Natatorium.
Her time at the state meet in the 100yard freestyle was a season-best time for Ottem of 50.97 seconds. She was hoping to rebreak a record that she set at Division 2 state two years ago. However, she wasn’t able to do that because the time wasn’t quite fast enough and because she was competing in Division 1 this year due to higher enrollment at River Falls.
In the 200-yard freestyle event, according to head coach Caitlin Brudzinski, Ottem didn’t feel as if she was fully ready for the event and even stated that she was tired before starting the race. Despite not feeling her best, Ottem posted a time of 1:50.86, which earned her another fourthplace finish.
“She went just a tiny bit slower than her sectional time from the week before,” Brudzinski said. “It was a weird start. She came out and said she felt a little bit tired. I know she wasn’t super happy with (the fourth-place finish).”
The fact that Ottem wasn’t completely satisfied with her two fourth-place finishes in a state championship competition is a testament to what she expects of herself in swimming competitions. During her freshman year at River Falls, she joined the team and immediately made her mark on the program by shattering school records.
“Her freshman year she joined the team and pretty much blew through every school record in the events she swam,” Brudzinski said. “She won most of her races, if not all of them, and we were Division 2 that year.”
During that freshman season, Ottem swam the same aforementioned events, the 100 and 200-yard events, and won both of them at the state meet by several seconds. She set the River Falls records for those events multiple times and then capped off that freshman season by breaking them again at the state meet. After one season, she was instantly one of the most prolific swimmers in River Falls history.
Her sophomore season – similar to the rest of the world – was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. She decided not to swim for River Falls because of the everlooming possibility of having the season shut down at any time. That’s why she competed for her club team, Mako Aquatics, in Hudson.
After spending the season competing at the club level instead of the high school level, Ottem made her return to River Falls for her junior season and picked up right where she left off in terms of swimming excellence. Head coach Brudzinski spoke about the expectations for Ottem when she came into the River Falls program as a freshman two years ago.
“I don’t know that we knew the extent of how good she was going to be,” Brudzinski said. “After those first couple of meets, we knew that she was definitely something special. She has a natural feel for the water. If you watch her swim, she makes it look easy. She’s got great technique, a natural feel, and she does have that competitive drive. During the season, I don’t think she had a race closer than two or three seconds. She was that far ahead.”
Even at sectionals, she was still several seconds ahead in a Division 1 high school race. Doing that, especially as a junior, is essentially unheard of. Brudzinski spoke about the joys and some of the challenges of coaching a gifted swimmer such as Ottem.
“It’s a lot of fun but it can also be a struggle,” Brudzinski said. “Swimming in high school is a tough sport to come out as a brand-new athlete with no experience. We have some girls that do that and it’s great. I love having those girls. But trying to cater a workout to those girls who are still learning strokes and then also all the way up to Ellery (Ottem) who is a state athlete, can be difficult. It’s trying to find that balance and finding ways to push (Ottem).”
That challenge of trying to help Ottem improve is something that Brudzinski has been working at since she began working with Ottem as a freshman. But it’s hard to see how much she’s improving because she has already set every single individual swimming school record for River Falls.
“It’s a little bit harder to see some of that improvement because she bounces around in so many events,” Brudzinski said. “She was in every possible event at least twice this year. I do think she has improved since her freshman year. She put on some muscle and has improved her times.”
Ottem is one of the few high school athletes who has accomplished essentially everything there is to accomplish at the high school level. Because of that, the only goal that remains for her senior year of 2022 is winning another state title as an individual.
“I absolutely believe her expectation is to win at state,” Brudzinski said. “We will go into the season with that goal in mind.”
According to Brudzinski, Ottem has gone to visit Auburn and Alabama, two massive Division 1 schools where she could swim at a collegiate level. She is getting looks from a wide variety of Division 1 schools where she could compete after her senior season next year. Ottem is generating serious interest from the next level and still has a year to improve as a high school swimmer.
Ottem’s goal for next year is simple, win a state title as an individual at the high school Division 1 level. She will get that opportunity next fall during her senior swimming season.
River Falls High School junior swimmer Ellery Ottem stands on the fourth-place podium at the state swim meet in Waukesha on Saturday, Nov. 13. Ottem finished in fourth place in both the 100 and 200-yard freestyle events. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Brudzinski