After months of doubt and speculation, the reigning Sac-Joaquin Section and CIF State champion in the 100-yard breaststroke will return to the pool to defend his titles.
The swimming postseason begins this weekend with the section finals at Tokay High. Trials are Thursday (girls) and Friday (boys) with finals set for Saturday. The finals begin at 10 a.m.
All eyes will be on Gregori High senior Andrew Britton, a former All-District swimmer and water polo player of the year, and his tender right knee.
Britton became the first swimmer in Stanislaus District history to win CIF gold last spring, edging Ripon Aquatics teammates Ty Wells in the final of the 100-yard breaststroke.
Life was good, Britton said, until a touchdown nearly derailed his senior season. Britton suffered a Grade 1 MCL sprain while playing football with friends.
Determined to keep his racing calendar, Britton chose not to rest the injury. Instead, he tore the MCL and strained his groin competing in the 100 and 200 breaststroke at the U.S. Winter Junior Championships in Iowa in December.
He missed the next two months, including the high school water polo season.
"I didn't really have any kick behind me," Britton said of his fifth-place finished in the 100 at nationals. "I was kind of bummed out, because I think I could have gone best-time and gotten on the podium.
"In the 200, I just destroyed my knee. I really tore it up," he added. "I was out of the water until the middle of February, so I'm just getting back into it. My knee is still pretty sensitive to the breaststroke."
It won't keep Britton out of his signature event this weekend. He will swim the 100 breaststroke, refusing to simply concede his throne to the Arizona-bound Wells, the only Stanislaus District swimmer to qualify for all three CIF State meets.
If Wells wants the crown, Britton says he's going to have to take it from his head.
"I'm not going to sit back and let Ty win it," Britton said with a chuckle. "I've got to push him. I'm going in with no expectations. I'm going to get up on the block and see what happens."
That's no ruse: Britton has no idea how his knee will hold up in a sprint for gold.
Since returning to the pool in February, Britton has been playing catch up. Two months out of the water eroded at his endurance and speed, leaving him susceptible to doubt and other demons.
A prized recruit for the University of Utah, Britton labored through training sessions. He struggled to keep up with his teammates.
"Being out of the water for two months, when you're out of the water that long, you lose your feel," he said. "Your lungs are gone. It sucks when kids you normally beat are just destroying you. I wanted to quit."
His outlook -- and conditioning -- turned at a Ripon Aquatics training camp during spring break. As his times dropped, his confidence soared. "That's when I was like, 'Yeah, this is my sport again,' " Britton said.
He continued his push at the Southern Section Meet at Johansen High in April, swimming the freestyle distance events to build endurance. He was a double-even winner, capturing gold in the 200 in 1:43.96 and the 500 in 4:49.19.
Ripon Aquatics coach Erik Zador, a former Sac-Joaquin Section champion, believes Britton is the favorite in the 100 breaststroke, despite his injury and time away.
"I'm not worried about how he'll do at sections," Zador added. "He loves that spotlight. He loves to be in that position. Sometimes, these little setbacks that kids go through at a young age aren't so bad. We've worked through it and moved forward. He's bounced back and I think he'll do well."
Others to Watch
Ty Wells, senior, Ripon High: Wells will contend for the podium in the 100 breaststroke and 100 butterfly. He has a chance to close his career as one of the most decorated swimmers in Stanislaus District history.
Malia Fernandez, sophomore, Central Catholic: The reigning All-District Girls Swimmer of the Year set records in the 50 and 100 freestyle at the Valley Oak League Championships.
Matthew Trejo, sophomore, Manteca High: Trejo is the district's next superstar, and his coming out party may take place Saturday at sections. Trejo will push Wells in the 100 butterfly.
Mallory Brubaker, senior, Ripon High: The Cal Baptist commit is looking for a State-qualifying time in her signature event, the 500 freestyle.
Lucas Esenwein, sophomore, Ripon High: A talented water polo player, Esenwein is starting to see similar results in swimming. He is the area's top freestyle sprinter, winning the 50 and 100 at the Southern Section Meet.
Megan Tolman, sophomore, Sierra High: The younger sister of Scott Tolman, a two-time All-District swimmer of the year, Megan is writing her own story. She has a chance to advance to State in the 100 breaststroke and 100 butterfly.