READING — When you are a high school athlete and you get recognized as an all-conference selection, that's a pretty incredible accomplishment considering there's only a small percentage of kids from the entire league who get to that level.
Granted swimming is a little different than most other sports, but how about being an all-league selection four times, in the same season? And imagine accomplishing that rare feat as a ninth grader?
Freshman, yes freshman, Kyla Kelley of Wilmington High helped lead the Wilmington/North Reading co-op girls swim team to its first Cape Ann League Championship Meet title back on February 11th (results weren't announced until a week later).
Individually Kelley took home the 200-yard IM and the 500-freestyle with respective times of 2:13.51 and 5:15.01. Her time in the individual medley would have placed her third at last year's Division 1 North Sectional Meet.
Besides the two individual titles, she was also a part of two winning relay teams, the 200-medley and the 400-freestyle. She joined Maddie Koenig, Kelly Crossan and Melanie Feffer to finish first in the medley with a combined time of 2:01.44 and then she was with Oli Grabar, Wilmington resident Emma Ryan and Koenig to take the 400-freestyle at 4:04.09.
Pretty good for a ninth grader, eh?
"Kyla has had an incredible freshman season,” said head coach Sue Hunter. “She was one of our highest point scorers and definitely showed us some impressive skills and work ethic. I look forward to seeing more from her in the years to come!"
Kelley helped the Wild Hornets finish 5-0 in the regular season, so winning the league meet was a tremendous accomplishment but may not have been that big of a surprise.
“I think we were definitely hoping to win. We knew it was a possibility. We were undefeated in the regular season, so we were excited for it,” she said.
Kelley started swimming competitively at the age of six with the Lowell Barracudas before moving on to the Boston YMCA Blue Fins program and now Crimson Aquatics, a near year round team that swims out of the Gr. Lawrence Tech pool. Through those years she said she learned different techniques with the different strokes she needs for each event and that obviously helped her have so much success in this first year of high school competition.
“(Being with the Barracudas program) was a good introduction to swim. I had a lot of good friends and some of them I'm still friends with today. It was a fun team and I got to learn some technique stuff which I think helped me later on,” she said.
At the league meet, Kelley's day started off with the 200-medley relay event. She was the third leg and swam the butterfly. After a short break, she was back in the pool for the 200-IM. Her time of 2:13.51 ended up being a personal record for the high school team by four seconds.
“I was racing Ethan Ryan (of the boys team) and we have always raced each other in that event,” she said. “I knew him from DYB and he's a breaststroker which is my worst stroke so I would always try to have him not beat me by too much in the breaststroke.”
Again she had a short break before gearing up for the toughest challenge of the day, the 500-freestyle, which is 20 laps. She finished with another personal record of 5:15.01, which again was tops in the entire league. She was asked about the fatigue from this one event.
“It just depends on how hard you try in the beginning,” she said. “Some people prefer to spring the second half of the race and I didn't do that. I actually went out too fast and I just died at the end, but it turned out fine.”
Certainly it turned out better than 'fine' but Kelley admitted that after that third event, she was pretty exhausted, but she had enough left in the tank to compete one more time and come away with another first place finish.
“(In the 400-freestyle relay) I was definitely tired,” she said. “We all have to stand off to the side as there can only be one person behind the blocks, so we were just all psyching eachother up and saying it's only four (25-yard sprints) and we can do this.”
After that race ended, Kelley and her teammates had no idea how they did individually or as a team. The results weren't announced until a week later, and it was in a group text with the rest of the team when the girls celebrated as champions.
“We were all really excited,” she said and then being asked about her own performances. “I was really happy with my races and I was just so glad that the entire season happened.”
This is just the third season what Wilmington and North Reading have joined forces as a co-op team. Back in 2018, Kyla's mother Crystal was one of the first to sign a petition to try to get the high school to start a program and certainly Kyla is thrilled to have had this experience of swimming for the Wild Hornets during this abbreviated, yet different season.
“I'm really happy that it did happen,” she said. “I think it's a great opportunity for a bunch of kids from Wilmington to reach out and meet new people from other towns that you wouldn't necessarily meet. I got a bunch of my friends to join this year's team and they are not swimmers, but it was fun. They did really good.”
And obviously so did she.