FEDERAL WAY — Moments after Sophia Sunwoo pulled away from Tahoma on the final leg of the 4×100 relay at the King County Aquatic Center to secure the Class 4A state swimming and diving team title for the Newport Knights on Saturday morning, coach Mike Mullen referred to his sophomore star reverently.
“What she did today, it’s like a Michael Jordan thing,” said Mullen, in his first season as the Knights coach. “She’s got the flu. I actually pulled her out of practice on Thursday. We were worried about whether she could go or not this weekend.”
Mullen’s Jordan reference was to an NBA finals game 25 years ago against the Utah Jazz, when the Chicago Bulls star scored 38 points to beat the Jazz despite slumping against teammates during game breaks just to stay on his feet.
By Saturday morning, Sunwoo had hydrated for a couple of days. She showed up for Friday’s preliminary round and qualified first in her individual events — the 50- and 100-yard freestyles — despite barely being able to walk. While she ended up finishing second to Issaquah’s Gillian Tu in the 50 on Saturday, she won the 100 in an All-America Consideration time of 50.42 seconds.
“I’ve always had a really bad immune system,” Sunwoo said. “I’ve been trying to battle that and do my best. I’ve been to other big meets like this and been sick, and been worse.”
Redmond senior Michelle Chen backed up her top-seeded times, qualifying first in her individual events and was really never challenged in winning the 100-yard butterfly (56.21 seconds) and 100 backstroke (56.59).
Neither were Tahoma sophomore Elayne Chen nor Tu, who raced to an All-America Consideration time of 23.21 seconds in beating Sunwoo (23.31) for the 50 free title and an All-America Automatic time of 1:00.72 in the 100 breast, while Elayne Chen won the 200 free in 1:54.01 and the 500 free in 5:03.03.
Of the three individual double winners, Tu was named the swimmer of the meet, beating out the two Chens for the award thanks to those AAC times.
“I was just trying to think about both races, our relays,” Tu said. “Trying to get my personal best. So (swimmer of the meet) was never on my mind.”
Tu’s breaststroke win was the only meet record broken Saturday, breaking the mark she set a day earlier in the prelims of 1:01.14.
While most of the individual event winners came from the top prelim qualifiers, there were no foregone conclusions when it came to the tight race for the team title. That outcome just got murkier heading into Saturday’s finals and remained so until the final event of the meet — the 400 free relay.
Defending champion Tahoma stayed atop the standings virtually the entire morning Saturday, and still led 200-199 over the Knights heading into the final event of the meet thanks in part to the efforts of Elayne Chen.
“It motivates me to beat whoever is next to me,” Chen said of chasing a team title. “It’s a really good position to be in.”
With no other school was close, which ever finished before the other between Tahoma and Newport in the final relay would take home the team championship.
Tahoma sent Chen out first, and the sophomore staked the Bears to three-second lead after the first 100. Tahoma maintained that lead through the second leg, but Newport had about a half-second advantage as Sunwoo dived off the blocks for the anchor leg
Sunwoo turned that small advantage into a nearly six-second victory, 3:35.56 to runner-up Tahoma’s 3:41.21, and a state title.
“She’s kind of an ace up our sleeve,” said Mullen, who took over for the retired Eric Bartleson this season. “I’ve been an assistant at Newport for the last three years, so I’ve seen the success and the formula. I just tried to apply all the lessons I learned, keep the team together and it’s pretty amazing to see what everybody did today.”
The title was Mullen’s first, and the fourth in the last five state meets for the Knights. It’s Newport’s sixth team championship since 2012.