‘You’ve got to be willing to make it hurt and be uncomfortable’: Tough, tested Tigers claw way to 28th straight swim and dive title

    It’s hard to consider a 27-time defending champion an underdog, but that’s the position Lander Valley High School found itself in entering the 2024 3A State Swim & Dive Championships, held at the Laramie High School Aquatic Center Feb. 16-17.

    Based on qualifying times, Buffalo High School was the prohibitive favorite. Projected finishes calculated with their entry times would place Buffalo ahead of Lander at the conclusion of the meet. If the twelve events followed the chalk, the Bison were poised to dethrone the king of Wyoming swimming.

    It will happen at some point. Each year that the Tigers’ streak extends, the collective heft of that success weighs on the current team’s athletes a bit more. Heavy and heavier is the head that wears the crown, as is the head that dons a Lander swim cap.


    LVHS’s run of consecutive swim and dive championships is the longest in US history for public high schools. Consider that the Tigers who ascended the podium in 1997 to accept the state championship trophy launching the streak were paying $1.22 for a gallon of gas at the pump; playing Mortal Kombat 4 on the hot new Nintendo 64 gaming system; and marveling at the grandeur of Titanic on the big screen, wondering, like audiences worldwide, why Rose couldn’t have scooted over just a tiny bit to make room for Jack on that floating trunk.

    Would this be the year that Lander Valley’s reign over 3A swimming came to an end?

    No. No, it would not.

    The Tigers proved the superior squad when and where it mattered, reaffirming that championships are won in the pool, not on paper. Lander earned 308 points, outdistancing runner-up Buffalo and the rest of the 13-team field by 66 points in capturing its 28th-consecutive title.


    Inarguably, one program continues to set the bar for Wyoming swimming, and that is Lander Valley.

    “Coming in, we knew we were going to have to utilize our depth and move up in the rankings where we could,” says head coach Shawna Morgan of her team’s mindset entering this state meet in the unfamiliar position. “We knew that every athlete was going to have to cut time and swim his best race of the season.”

    The 23 Lander Valley swimmers and divers who qualified for the state meet did exactly that. In Friday evening’s prelims, each Tiger swam faster than his season-best entry time, effectively reconfiguring the seeding for Saturday’s championship finals. 


    “We had 100% time cuts in the prelims, and that was huge,” Morgan explains of the team’s opening night performance. “Every one of them swam and dove their absolute best.”

    Tigers “swim up” and show out in prelims

    The 1 meter diving competition led off the Friday evening session. Four LVHS divers qualified for the state meet, and the contingent immediately made its mark.

    After eight preliminary dives, the field of 20 was trimmed to a dozen for Saturday’s final round. A trio of Tigers — juniors Gage Hampton and Dylan Blunck along with sophomore Jace Hammond — sprung, turned and twisted their way into three of the coveted spots.


    Hampton sat in third after the prelims with a score of 275.05 points, with Blunck (262.05) fifth and Hammond (231.75) in eleventh. Junior Mason Wietzki (124.05) finished 19th.

    The 200 yard medley relay followed diving. Colby Blackburn, Benny Kulow, Reed McFadden and Finn Richards quickly served notice that Lander Valley was ready to race, throwing down a time of 1:35.84, four seconds faster than their entry time and nearly two seconds ahead of Buffalo, the top seed. The crowd was energized by the Tiger foursome, as were their teammates.

    “It’s super important to the team as a whole because it really starts us off on a strong note,” Richards says of the opening relay, the first of the eleven events which are contested in the pool. “Going into prelims we were seeded second, so we had to come at it with the mindset that we were underdogs, and that really gave us the motivation we needed to swim our best. We were fortunate enough to come out on top and really start the momentum for the meet.”

    Fresh off of his breaststroke leg in the relay, Kulow hammered out 1:43.76 in the 200 yard freestyle, handily earning the top seed. Junior Sequeil Lozier (1:52.27) took four seconds off his entry time, good enough for a sixth-place finish and the final spot in Saturday’s A final. Carter Plaisted dropped six seconds, swimming 1:55.44 and grabbing a lane in the B final with the eighth-fastest time.

    Next up was another medley, the individual variety. McFadden’s season-best time of 2:08.00 had him seeded second entering the meet. In his prelim heat, he crushed a 1:59.42, fastest in the field by eight seconds. Junior teammate Jacksen Washburn (2:10.31) slashed nine seconds off of his seed time to place third in the IM. Sophomore Brody Blunck (2:12.95) did him two seconds better, cutting 11 from his season best for seventh, while Carson Deeds swam 2:19.24, a four-second improvement to secure tenth place. Fellow junior Shane Cunningham (2:15.87) narrowly missed out on the B final by two tenths, cutting six seconds to finish 13th. A pair of freshmen — Swithin Shearin (2:21.44) and Dierk Harms (2:26.03) — dropped six seconds and eight seconds, respectively, placing 18th and 24th.

    Lander claimed its fourth top time of the prelims session in the 50 yard freestyle, with the speedy Richards touching the pad first in 21.49. Junior Shawn Cunningham (24.89) finished 18th, while freshmen Brooks Even (25.40) took 22nd and Gage Toups (25.62) placed 25th.

    Six Tigers competed in the prelims of the 100 yard butterfly. McFadden took first in 52.49, four seconds faster than his season best. The talented junior Blackburn (54.74) secured a spot in the A final with the fourth-fastest swim. Brody Blunck cut four seconds, swimming 1:01.05 for 10th. Dylan Blunck (1:04.63), sophomore Trevor Hill (1:04.94) and Shawn Cunningham (1:05.07) all finished in the top 20.

    “It made me super proud to see the guys dropping so much time and stepping up when we needed them to,” says McFadden.

    Kulow followed the fly with another top-seeded swim, this in the 100 yard freestyle, touching in 47.56. Lozier once again made it two Tigers for the A final with a 50.45, good for fourth. Shane Cunningham (53.61) placed 14th.

    Halfway through prelims, the Tigers were roaring: six events, six top times, ten A finalists, four B finalists.

    In the grueling 500 yard freestyle, Washburn dropped a whopping 24 seconds from his season best to finish fifth in a time of 5:26.51. Shearin (5:46.88) clipped 19 seconds for 14th. Jacob Rudd (5:53.77) finished 17th, trimming 16 seconds, with fellow sophomore Jacob Gatlin (5:55.35) rounding out the top 20. Harms (6:01.13) swam ten seconds faster than his season best, good for 23rd.

    Blackburn, Shane Cunningham, Lozier and McFadden teamed up for a second-place prelim time of 1:31.62 in the 200 freestyle relay.

    Tigers took the top two spots in the 100 yard backstroke. Richards (54.16) touched first followed by Blackburn (55.85). Plaisted swam a terrific 59.78 for seventh, the sophomore a mere .09 seconds from the last spot in the A final. Hampton (1:04.77) placed 15th.

    In the 100 yard breaststroke, Deeds shaved off five seconds to place second in 1:03.56. Hill (1:06.91) snagged a B final slot in 11th. Even (1:08.71) placed 14th, followed by Rudd (1:10.68) in 16th and sophomore Micah Morgan (1:11.73) in 17th.

    Lander Valley wrapped up the preliminary round in style, securing the top time in the 400 freestyle relay. Shane Cunningham, Lozier, Kulow and Richards churned their way to a 3:22.40.

    It was a fitting conclusion to the prelims, a dominant display of swimming and diving prowess showcasing the Tigers’ combination of top-tier talent, unmatched depth and Lander grit.

    “The performances in prelims and the ability of the boys to swim up and capture spots in both the A and B finals not only gave everyone confidence in their abilities but showed the strength of the team. It set the tone for the meet,” McFadden says.

    The senior credits Lander’s coaches — Morgan, Tim Hester, Greg Anderson and Faith Hamilton — with putting the Tigers in position to shine at state.

    “The training the coaches give us throughout the year gives us confidence in our ability to perform well when it counts, and their encouragement at the state meet and the energy they bring help everyone to swim better.”

    Certainly, plenty of work remained for day two — no points are awarded in the preliminary round — but LVHS had reestablished itself as the team to beat, familiar waters for the storied program.

    “Finals is when we have fun”

    During the finals round, the atmosphere is electric, the intensity palpable. One would think that this is when the pressure to perform is at its highest.

    For each event, the B final leads off followed by the championship A final. Songs selected by the top qualifiers in each event blare over the loudspeakers as the A finalists file through a tunnel of swimmers and divers lining the pool deck on their way to the starting blocks. The crowd quiets for the gun, then erupts. Athletes gathered at the end of their teammate’s lane holler and wave their arms manically, urging the finalist to swim faster. It is a manic scene.

    To hear Kulow tell it, however, finals is the time to take a deep breath and enjoy the moment. The real pressure is felt during the prelims. 

    “Friday is the difficult and intense day. If we’re set up well for Saturday, not much can go wrong,” he explains. “Finals is when we have fun and ride our momentum that we built in prelims. Of course the nerves are still high, but, at least for me, the major stress is off because kids did what they needed to do the night before. I just like to make sure I’m focused but still having fun and make sure everyone on the team is excited.”

    First up for Saturday’s finals was the 200 medley relay, and it was immediately clear that maintaining an excited state would not be an issue for Lander Valley and its fans. 

    Blackburn backstroked Lander to a quick lead on the opening leg. Kulow followed with a strong breaststroke, then McFadden opened a sizable gap with a stellar butterfly leg. Richards freestyled first place home for the Tigers, touching the pad at 1:34.95, nearly a second faster than the foursome’s time in prelims.

    LVHS has now won the 200 medley 19 times during the title streak, including each of the nine seasons that Morgan has served as head coach.

    Kulow climbed down from the medley podium and back atop the starting block, this time for the 200 free final. He took the title in 1:45.97, with teammate Lozier rounding out the A final in 6th place. Plaisted picked up valuable points in the B final, finishing 8th.

    McFadden then led a group of four Tigers — the most Lander finalists in any event — to the blocks for the 200 yard IM final. He cut two seconds from his prelim swim to take the top spot in 1:57.85. Washburn finished 6th. Blunck touched first in the B final, good for 7th place, while Deeds placed 10th.

    Kulow and McFadden winning the first two individual events of finals after helping the Tigers secure the medley relay title seemed appropriate: the pair represent the only two seniors on this season’s team. Each athlete was an 11-time All-State honoree during his high school career, and each was a key contributor to four LVHS state championships. According to Morgan, title number 28 in the streak would not have happened without the duo.

    “We could not have won had it not been for either one of these two and their performances,” the coach shared of Kulow and McFadden. “They also did a great job explaining what was needed from the underclassman for us to win the meet. They were great leaders.”

    The 50 freestyle — referred to as the “splash and dash” in swimming parlance — was up next. Only two lengths of the pool, the race is the track equivalent of the 100 meter dash, often decided by tenths or even hundredths of a second. There is no room for error.

    Richards sprinted to the top seed in prelims by .28 seconds, but he knew that he would need to swim a near-perfect race to finish ahead of the field in the final. He did.

    The junior touched in 21.31, faster than his prelim and .49 ahead of the runner up. Richards believes the key to his victory was his technique and position off the wall as he flipped from the first length to the second.

    “For me, it was my turn,” he explains of his winning swim. “Coach Greg played a big part in that. He always focused on improving our turns and underwaters throughout the season. I feel like that really stuck with me and I was able to use it as a way to gain a little bit of a lead, and then I just carried it on through the last 25 yards and was able to pick up the first place.”

    Diving was up next. According to Morgan, it was a critical moment for the Tigers and their push to the team title. “Buffalo caught up quite a bit after placing three in the top six of the 50 free final, but diving is where we pulled away. Diving gave us the breathing room to relax and kick butt in the second half of the meet.”

    Lander was the only team to qualify three competitors for the final. Hampton and Blunck held their prelim positions, finishing third and fifth after the final three dives. Hammond wrapped up a solid state debut with a 12th place effort in his first season competing.

    Kulow says the showing by the Tiger divers contributed greatly to maintaining the swimmers’ momentum in the pool. “Overall the team aspect is influenced by individual performance and points scored, so the divers did their part for the team and we needed to step up to do ours. It provides an extra bit of motivation because you know that your teammates did their part and worked hard and performed well.”

    The swimming action resumed with the 100 butterfly final. McFadden took his second individual title of the day, winning in a time of 51.16. Blackburn had a clutch performance, moving ahead one spot from his qualifying seed to take third. Blunck scored with his 12th place finish.

    McFadden believes that the Tigers’ season-long willingness to embrace discomfort contributed to their day-two success. “Going into finals, I think my teammates and I had the mindset that there was really nothing to lose and that it was ultimately going to come down to who wanted it most.

    “Everyone is tired on day two no matter who you are or what team you are on. You’ve got to be willing to make it hurt and be uncomfortable, which is what lots of the guys and I were able to do on the second day.”

    McFadden is no stranger to discomfort. Throughout the swim season, he participated in 6:00 AM pool practices with the team, then pushed himself through individual track and field workouts in the afternoons and evenings. The multisport athlete ran unattached in a handful of track meets in Colorado and Utah. After state swimming, he joined the LVHS track team for the final two weeks of its season.

    Competing at the State Indoor Track and Field Championships in Gillette this past weekend, McFadden won the 400 meters in a new state record time. He also placed first in the 200 meters and 55 meter hurdles and placed third in the pole vault. McFadden has the unique and likely historic distinction of earning six All-State awards in two different sports during one season.

    After the fly, Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” — chosen by top-qualifier Kulow — played as the finalists for the 100 freestyle made their way to blocks.

    The senior didn’t worry about a thing, cruising to victory in a time of 47.22, claiming another state title in the final individual swim of his stellar high school career. During the four years he swam as a Tiger, Kulow blazed a trail uniquely all his own, and he’ll be remembered as one of the most talented and versatile high school swimmers to compete in the Cowboy State. Lozier picked up 5th-place points for Lander.

    In the 500 free, Washburn maintained his prelim seeding, placing 5th in the A final with a time of 5:29.14. The 200 free relay of Blackburn, Shane Cunningham, Lozier and McFadden held tight to their qualifying spot, as well, taking second in the final.

    The talented junior tandem of Richards (53.88) and Blackburn (55.41) went gold-and-silver in the 100 backstroke A final, both cutting time from their prelim swims. It was the second individual title of the day for Richards.

    Deeds finished 4th in the 100 breastroke A final, with Hill taking 11th in the B.

    Heading into the 400 freestyle relay, the last event of the day, the championship had been decided. That fact didn’t matter to the four Tigers — Shane Cunningham, Lozier, Kulow and Richards — who would close out finals, however.

    “It doesn’t seem over until we’re all done swimming, even if we could DQ and still win,” says Kulow of LVHS’s insurmountable lead, “but it definitely took some of the pressure off and allowed us to just go out and have fun.” 

    The raucous Lander fans cheered wildly throughout the 16 lengths of the relay, and when Richards touched first for a time of 3:16.39 — six seconds faster than the quartet’s top-qualifying prelim effort — the roar was deafening.

    “Being on the relay with Finn, Sequeil and Shane was amazing since they have all worked so hard and winning it was just the cherry on top of a great meet and season as a whole,” Kulow says.

    Following the relay victory, Kulow was announced as the 3A Athlete of the Year. Richards was named Athlete of the Meet.

    When Lander ascended the podium for the presentation of the state championship trophy and photos, front and center of the group stood the two smiling seniors: McFadden gripping a large piece of poster board with a two drawn on it, Kulow holding an eight.

    Then, for the 28th straight time, the coaches’ executed celebratory cannonballs into the pool, followed by their Tigers. Splashing, laughing, hugging and chanting ensued. Another title for Lander Valley, but the first and only that would be won by this particular group of young men. Each championship is special, and this one was theirs.

    Morgan, who was named 3A Coach of the Year, believes a singular characteristic will stand out in her memory of the 2024 Lander Valley High School Tigers. 

    “I will remember this team’s fight. For the first time in six years, we had to fight for every point in order to be victorious,” she says. “It was really cool to watch them come together as a team and realize that every point matters, so every swim, every dive matters. They all stepped up to the challenge, and they all fought for the win.”

    3A State Swim & Dive Championships

    Feb. 16-17, 2024 / Laramie, WY

    TEAM SCORES: 1. LANDER 308, 2. Buffalo 242, 3. Evanston 175, 4. Riverton 143, 5. Cody 116, 6. Green River 104, 7. Kemmerer 102, 8. Lyman 72, 9. Powell 52, 10. Rawlins 27, 11. Sublette County 21, 12. Newcastle 15, 12. Douglas 15

    200 YARD MEDLEY RELAY (A FINAL): 1. LANDER [Colby Blackburn(JR), Benny Kulow(SR), Reed McFadden(SR), Finn Richards(JR)] 1:34.95 **ALL-STATE** (PRELIMS): 1. LANDER [Colby Blackburn(JR), Benny Kulow(SR), Reed McFadden(SR), Finn Richards(JR)] 1:35.84

    200 YARD FREESTYLE (A FINAL): 1. Benny Kulow(SR) 1:45.97 **ALL-STATE**; 6. Sequeil Lozier(JR) 1:53.41 (B FINAL): Carter Plaisted(SO) 1:55.41 (PRELIMS): 1. Benny Kulow(SR) 1:43.76; 6. Sequeil Lozier(JR) 1:52.27; 8. Carter Plaisted(SO) 1:55.44

    200 YARD IM (A FINAL): 1. Reed McFadden(SR) 1:57.85 **ALL-STATE**; 6. Jacksen Washburn(JR) 2:12.02 (B FINAL): 7. Brody Blunck 2:13.36; 10. Carson Deeds(JR) 2:15.80 (PRELIMS): 1. Reed McFadden(SR) 1:59.42; 3. Jacksen Washburn(JR) 2:10.31; 7. Brody Blunck(SO) 2:12.95; 10. Carson Deeds(JR) 2:14.68; 13. Shane Cunningham(JR) 2:15.87; 18. Swithin Shearin(FR) 2:21.44; 24. Dierk Harms(FR) 2:16.03

    50 YARD FREESTYLE (A FINAL): 1. Finn Richards(JR) 21.31 **ALL-STATE** (PRELIMS): 1. Finn Richards(JR) 21.49; 22. Brooks Even(FR) 25.40; 25. Gage Toups(FR) 25.62

    1 METER DIVING (FINALS): 3. Gage Hampton(JR) 382.55; 5. Dylan Blunck(JR) 345.90; 12. Jace Hammond(SO) 307.60(PRELIMS): 3. Gage Hampton(JR) 275.05; 5. Dylan Blunck(JR) 262.05; 11. Jace Hammond(SO) 231.75; 19. Mason Wietzki(JR) 124.05

    100 YARD BUTTERFLY (A FINAL): 1. Reed McFadden(SR) 51.16 **ALL-STATE**; 3. Colby Blackburn(JR) 53.31 (B FINAL): 12. Brody Blunck(SO) 1:01.53 (PRELIMS): 1. Reed McFadden(SR) 52.49; 4. Colby Blackburn(JR) 54.74; 10. Brody Blunck 1:01.05; 18. Dylan Blunck(JR) 1:04.63; 19. Trevor Hill(SO) 1:04.94; 20. Shawn Cunningham(JR) 1:05.07

    100 YARD FREE (A FINAL): 1. Benny Kulow(SR) 47.22 **ALL-STATE**; 5. Sequeil Lozier(JR) 52.37 (PRELIMS): 1. Benny Kulow(SR) 47.56; 4. Sequeil Lozier 50.45; 14. Shane Cunningham(JR) 53.61

    500 YARD FREE (A FINAL): 5. Jacksen Washburn(JR) 5:29.14 (PRELIMS): 5. Jacksen Washburn(JR) 5:26.51; 14. Swithin Shearin(FR) 5:46.88; 17. Jacob Rudd(SO) 5:53.77; 20. Jacob Gatlin(SO) 5:55.35; 23. Dierk Harms(FR) 6:01.13

    200 YARD FREE RELAY (A FINAL): 2. LANDER [Colby Blackburn(JR), Shane Cunningham(JR), Sequeil Lozier(JR), Reed McFadden(SR)] 1:31.01; (PRELIMS): 2. LANDER [Colby Blackburn(JR), Shane Cunningham(JR), Sequeil Lozier(JR), Reed McFadden(SR)] 1:31.62

    100 YARD BACKSTROKE (A FINAL): 1. Finn Richards(JR) 53.88 **ALL-STATE**; 2. Colby Blackburn(JR) 555.41 **ALL-STATE**; (B FINAL): 7. Carter Plaisted(SO) 59.11 (PRELIMS): 1. Finn Richards(JR) 54.16; 2. Colby Blackburn(JR) 55.85; 7. Carter Plaisted(SO) 59.78; 15. Gage Hampton(JR) 1:04.77

    100 YARD BREAST (A FINAL): 4. Carson Deeds(JR) 1:04.54 (B FINAL): 11. Trevor Hill(SO) 1:09.48 (PRELIMS): 2. Carson Deeds(JR) 1:03.56; 11. Trevor Hill(SO) 1:06.91; 14. Brooks Even(FR) 1:08.71; 16. Jacob Rudd(SO) 1:10.68; 17. Micah Morgan(SO) 1:11.73

    400 YARD FREE RELAY (A FINAL): 1. LANDER [Shane Cunningham(JR), Sequeil Lozier(JR), Benny Kulow(SR), Finn Richards(JR)] 3:16.39 **ALL-STATE** (PRELIMS): 1. LANDER [Shane Cunningham(JR), Sequeil Lozier(JR), Benny Kulow(SR), Finn Richards(JR)] 3:22.40

    3A ATHLETE OF THE MEET: Finn Richards

    3A ATHLETE OF THE YEAR: Benny Kulow

    3A HEAD COACH OF THE YEAR: Shawna Morgan


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