By Pete Chiodo
Mackenzie Webber’s gold medal-winning swim in the District 10 Class AAA 100-yard backstroke lasted just a blink of an eye longer than one minute and one second. The official time was 1:01.08.
However, the buildup to that minute-long effort actually goes back years. And those years preceding it, many of them ended in heartbreak.
Yet, Webber kept returning to the sport, kept putting in the work, kept trying different things to get better. And in her final chance to claim a District 10 gold medal she achieved. In 1:01.08.
So it isn’t so much the minute-long swim that earned Mackenzie Webber the title of Meadville Tribune’s 2014 Swimmer of the Year. It’s rather the years of dedication that came beforehand.
“It was actually two years ago when I was really, really close,” Webber said, noting when the drive for a D-10 title really kicked in.
“I was seeded with the same time as another girl and ended up losing that race. Ever since then I’ve been really motivated.”
She’s talking about the 2012 D-10 Class AAA championship meet, which she competed in as a sophomore. Her and McDowell freshman Danielle Snyder entered with the same qualifying time of 1:04.76. But Snyder ended up winning the title in 1:01.48. Webber took second in 1:04.71.
“Then last year the same thing happened,” said Webber. “I was really motivated by that.”
For the 2013 championship meet, Webber went into the backstroke with the third highest qualifying time at 1:04.75. She trailed Warren’s Elin Smith, who was seeded first (1:02.84); and Snyder, who seeded second (1:03.91).
And while Webber knocked off a good three seconds from her seed time, the race turned out just as the qualifying seeds would suggest — 1. Smith (59.83), 2. Snyder (1.01.24) and then Webber (1:01.53) in third.
With one year of high school swimming remaining, Webber was determined not to fall short again.
“Yeah, last year I started club swimming,” she said. “It was my first year swimming all year round.”
Webber traveled an hour to swim with the Seneca Valley Swim Club during the offseason.
“It was completely different than what I’d done before,” she said. “I had a new coach and he basically changed everything about my stroke, my start, my turn, things like that. I was motivated to get better.”
Then, during the 2013-14 swimming season, Webber proved not only to be one of the top backstroke swimmers in the District, but a talented swimmer in numerous other events as well.
“Mackenzie swam the IM, the 500, the 100 (free), the 100 fly,” said Meadville head coach Pete Coppelli. “(She) could be put anywhere you wanted (her) as far as dual meets go.”
Webber ended up leading Meadville in total points during the dual meet season. And by year’s end she was named a second-team All-Region 3 pick in both the 50 freestyle and the 100 backstroke.
Yet, even with all the extra work in the offseason, and a successful regular season, a gold medal at districts was far from a sure thing for Webber.
In fact, during the first day of the district meet, she missed out on an opportunity in the 50 freestyle, finishing second. And Meadville’s top-seeded girls 200 free relay team was upended by DuBois.
Her last golden opportunity in an individual event was in the following day’s 100 backstroke. She had the top qualifying time of 1:03.85. But right behind her was last year’s champ, Smith, with a time of 1:04.07.
And Smith didn’t just give up the title. The Warren swimmer put the pressure on Webber through the final 50 yards, so much so that Webber even saw her gaining and was forced to dig deep to hold her off down the final stretch.
Smith touched the wall in 1:02.15. Webber was champ in 1:01.08 ... and a few years.
“It was really exciting,” said Webber. “It feels really good to be leaving and knowing that I came back with a D-10 title.”
The way Coppelli sees it: “She did everything she could do to put herself in the best position and it turned out the way she wanted. That kind of long-term goal setting, I wouldn’t say its rare, but not every athlete is able to do that, to make the decisions to start a year out and then stay with it. It shows a lot of maturity as an athlete.”