Urbana's Liao tries to regain form after returning from injury
CHAMPAIGN – Urbana senior Athena Liao was exhausted after Tuesday's Twin City Swimming and Diving Meet.
But it was a good kind of tired. Rarely has she felt better.
Liao returned from a torn ACL in her right knee for last week's dual against Urbana University High, and Tuesday marked her first big meet since sustaining the injury during a physical education class last spring.
She tied for first in the 100-yard breaststroke, took fourth in the 200 individual medley, helped the Tigers win the 200 freestyle relay and was part of the third-place 200 medley relay.
Tiring, yes. But just being back in the pool was enough to boost her spirits.
"It was kind of frustrating," she said of the injury, a broad smile beginning to creep across her face. "But it's all good now."
For the area's premier swimmer – she was fourth in the 100 butterfly and fifth in the 100 breast at last year's state meet – Liao has been forced to lower her expectations in her final prep season. She was able to maintain some conditioning in the pool for much of the season but couldn't compete. She recently was cleared to participate in breaststroke, one of her best strokes.
"All season she hasn't been allowed to really kick," Urbana coach Michelle Zimmerman said. "She's been pulling all season. You can see her strength is there. We're just working on her sharpness."
How far behind is she, compared to recent seasons?
"Really behind," she said.
Take the 100 breast, for example. Liao was in the unusual position of swimming in the outside lane of the slow heat but managed to finish in 1:10.02, tying for first with Champaign Central's Emma Newman.
"On a bad day last year," Liao said, "(it would be) 1:08 or 1:07."
Still, all is not lost. Far from it.
Liao seems genuinely enthused to be back in action. This season was the first time she'd missed out on competition since she began her swim career at age 4 or 5, she said.
The joy of competing was enough to fuel her determination through rehab.
"It actually was kind of exciting because I had never done rehab before," she said. "It gave me a different perspective. It's not ideal, but I was optimistic. I was like, 'If I do this, I can swim again.' I was so excited to swim my first meet."
Liao said she held something back in her first meet, unsure of how her body would react. That wasn't the case Tuesday.
"Her stroke looks really good, and she said it feels good," Zimmerman said. "She's motivated."
The goals have been adjusted, however. Instead of a realistic shot to finish among the state's top three – a reasonable assumption before the injury – Liao now is shooting to qualify for the state meet, quickly approaching Nov. 16-17.
"All of my rivals from last year are so much faster than me right now," she said. "I don't have any chance of beating them there, so that means I'll have to make the cut for state, which is just as hard."
Central won nine of 12 events to capture Tuesday's championship. Mamie Hobbs swept the 50 and 100 freestyle sprints, Newman added the 500 free to the breaststroke title she shared with Liao, Mary Lacine captured the 100 back, Tatum Stewart took the 200 individual medley and Mary Lockman was victorious in the 200 free. The Maroons also won two relays.
Runner-up Centennial got victories from Alyssa Petruzzello (100 fly) and Norah Cetin (diving).