Swimmers make a splash at Finals

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Ambrosia Johnson leaps off the starting block on her way to a gold medal in the butterfly.

By Jon Johnson


SAFFORD – Another summer swim season has come and gone having culminated with championships at the Safford Pool on Saturday.

The top eight swimmers in each age group and stroke competed for bragging rights and a shiny medal for the top three in each event. The final list of eligible swimmers was culled from times they posted at earlier meets this year.

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Avery Johnson glides through the water on her way to a gold medal in the breaststroke.

Additionally, the meet also had a medley and free relay, which was not done at the regular meets. Relay competitors were awarded ribbons.

The Pima Flippers and Morenci Manta Rays rose to the top this year. With sheer numbers helping its cause, the team from Pima was successful in the younger age groups from 6 and under to 11-12 for both the girls and boys.

“I’m kind of glad it’s over, but it was a great season,” said Pima head swim coach Natalie Schlittenhardt. “The kids did fabulous today. They had good times. Everybody who was supposed to swim did, so I’m really pleased. We’re just looking forward to next year.”

While having less overall swimmers, Morenci fared well throughout all age groups, with Quinton Wiltbank, who dominated the competition, leading the way in the younger groups. The Manta Rays’ Erynn Johnson (9-10 Girls) dominated every event except breaststroke, and Abigail Gates was also very successful, taking first place in girls 11-12 100 Free, and 100 IM, as well as second place by a stroke in the 50 Free among her accolades. Gates went head-to-head with Pima’s Ambrosia Johnson, who took home two gold medals for the 50 Butterfly and 50 Free and two silver for the 100 Free and 100 IM.

Video by Jon Johnson/Gila Herald: Avery Johnson takes first in the 100 IM. 

Other standout swimmers from Pima included Kelsi Brimhall (9-10 Girls) and Liam Beaugy (9-10 Boys). 

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Pima’s Liam Beaugy makes the turn in the breaststroke.

Morenci was missing a couple of its younger star swimmers, including 9-year-old Abraham Cortez and 11-12 girls racer Nishuun Yazzie.

Without its full stable of younger swimmers, Morenci turned to its older ones, and that was where the year-round swimmers showed how much faster they are versus the local competition. It was a recurring theme of the night for the 13-14 girls age group of Avery Johnson, Marlo Day, and Brooklyn Millward to finish 1,2,3, respectively, in various races. Avery actually took first in every single event, including the two relays – an accomplishment that was tied by 17-year-old Morenci swimmer Taylee Bayardo, who won everything in the Girls 15 and up bracket.

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Morenci owned the Girls 13-14 age bracket with Avery Johnson, center, Marlo Day, right, and Brooklyn Millward, left, often finishing 1, 2, 3, respectively.

Bayardo, a backstroke phenom who has been swimming since she was 6-years-old, said she is excited about swimming on the newly minted Morenci High School swim team.

“I’m very grateful they are having (a team),” Bayardo said.

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Morenci’s Taylee Bayardo, left, and Avery Johnson won gold in every event for the 15 and up and 13-14 Girls categories, respectively.

Avery, who is the reigning state champion in the 11-12 Girls 100 Butterfly, will next race in Junior Olympics in Goodyear this coming weekend and then at the state championships the following weekend at Canyon Del Oro, just north of Tucson. Avery is currently ranked fifth in the state for 13-14 Girls in her events, according to her father, Lucas Johnson.

“It’s fun to see Avery and Brooklyn and Marlo push each other to get better and better,” Lucas said.

Lucas’ younger daughter, Erynn Johnson also performed well and had a bevy of medals.

“I’m proud of both of my girls,” Lucas said. (Erynn) got first in everything except the breaststroke.”

Avery, who loves the butterfly stroke the most, said she had a great time during the local swim season and she looks forward to doing well at state in her new age group.

“I’m on top when I’m 12 and when I turned 13 it’s like I’m down again,” she said. “I gotta try and get up.” (sic)

She said practice makes the difference.

“You have to practice,” Avery said. “If it’s hard getting up in the morning it will pay off in the meets.”

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Ambrosia Johnson races to first place in the butterfly. She beat the rest of the field by roughly three seconds.

While somewhat overlooked by the dominance of Morenci and Pima, Thatcher and Safford had a few swimmers who competed well and those who didn’t fare as well as others still had a good time finishing their season in style.

Second-year Safford head swim coach Stephanie Mullinix said she was impressed with how much her swimmers improved throughout the year. Mullinix, who was a kindergarten teacher in Safford, said he enjoyed getting to know her swimmers. 

“They really cut their times a lot,” Mullinix said. “That’s what we were going for, self-improvement.”

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Boys 11-12 swimmers take their marks to start their race.

Safford will have a new swim coach next season as Mullinix accepted a kindergarten teaching position in Gilbert. 

“Hopefully, they’ll continue the improvements we’ve made this summer and last summer and just keep it going and getting more kids out to figure out that they love swimming,” Mullinix said. “I loved making the connections with the kids and seeing how well they improved throughout the season. I’ll miss it.”

The Morenci High School swim team will be coached by its summer swim team coach, Eric Waananen.

Click here to see a photo album from the meet.