May 22—TOPEKA — The second Sydney Hicks touched the wall to complete the anchor leg of Manhattan's 200-yard individual medley relay, teammates Talia Francois, Sofia Steffensmeier and Ruth Perez swung their necks toward the video board at Topeka Federal Natatorium.
By the time Hicks poked her head above the water, her teammates' eyes were already widening. And their smiles were even wider.
Hicks, Francois, Steffensmeier and Perez swam the sixth fastest 200 medley relay at Friday's Class 6A state meet. Their finish (1:55) earned them Manhattan's first state relay medal since head coach Alex Brown took over the program in 2016-17.
That was one of five medals, the most during that same span. And those medals yielded 106 points and a ninth-place finish, two more high watermarks during Brown's tenure.
"This makes all the work we've put in worth it," Hicks said. "It's a really cool accomplishment to get my senior year. It means the world to me."
Hicks, who swam the freestyle leg of the medley, swam in the same relay during her freshman and sophomore seasons. But the Indians never finished higher than ninth before underclassmen Perez (freshman) and Steffensmeier (sophomore) joined the team.
As club swimmers, the Indians' newcomers had swam in important races before state. That experience, coupled with their speed,
"I feel like I did my part," Perez said. "We all thought we could do something like this. It's a relief to do it."
Perez and Steffensmeier each left Topeka with multiple medals. Perez wore all three of hers around her neck as the Indians boarded the bus.
She earned them by finishing fourth in the 100 breastroke (1:08), sixth in the 200 medley (2:16). She earned her 200 medley medal just minutes after taking her podium photo with her relay team with the relay medal.
Perez didn't realize her heat was starting until a Manhattan assistant flagged her down near the Indians' bleachers.
Steffensmeier added sixth-place medals in the 100 butterfly (59.37 seconds) and 500 freestyle (5:24) to Manhattan's collection, but she was most proud of the relayr result. That one was for Francois and Hicks, her senior teammates who she said kept her smiling at practice. In return, she left them with a memorable keepsake.
"That was a great moment, especially because Sydney and Talia are seniors," Steffensmeier said. "Ruth and I definitely wanted to medal for them so they could have that experience."
Francois, who said she'll miss being around her teammates each day, scored NUMBER points with her 15th-place finish (1:05) in the 100 butterfly (she was seeded 18th entering the race). Leaving Hicks, who she's known since both girls were 13 years old, will be especially difficult.
Hicks, whom Brown designated as the locker room leader in spirit, can't wait to see how Perez and Steffensmeier build off their state debuts in the future.
"I expect some first places," Hicks said. "The sky is the limit for them. They're so good, and I'm so excited to hear about all their great accomplishments."
Without Hicks and Francois the relay medal will be the hardest to duplicate. Sophomores Paige Chauncey and Audrey Conley tasted state alongside Hicks and Francois during their 14th-place finish in the 200 freestyle relay, but Brown wants to see more offseason commitment from them and his other returners before he decides who will fill the 400 free and 200 medley relay slots.
He hopes Perez and Steffensmeier, who drove to Lawrence and Topeka for extra practices this season (Perez attended a club practice the day after state), will inspire their teammates to swim more during the offseason.
"We want to get kids swimming as much as possible," Brown said. "That's how you get stronger when you come to (state).
Steffensmeier intends to play a leadership role for Manhattan next year, and she intends to keep the Indians' "feed the chickens" tradition alive. Before big races, like Friday's, the Indians pinch their thumb to their other fingers and tap their other palm, as if they're dropping bird feed on the ground.
Hicks started the tradition when she began referring to teammates as "her little chickens." She called the tradition a good luck charm.
After Friday's results, it's hard to disagree.
"I guess the chickens are just hungry," Steffensmeier said. "And then we feed them, and then we go out and kill it every time."