HARTFORD CITY, Ind. — “I got you.”
When Kristie Malott first took over the Blackford swimming and diving program three years ago, that was what she’d tell everyone who walked into the pool. And while those three words are no longer printed on the back of the Bruins’ T-shirts, like they were her first year, the meaning behind them remains as true as they were when Malott first began.
“I always tell them: to walk through the door, that’s the hardest part,” Malott said. “Come through the doors, I got you.”
Over the past few years, Malott’s leadership has helped Blackford’s swimming and diving program turn around.
When she first started in 2018, Malott says there were probably a dozen swimmers — both boys and girls — in the high school program. This season, during a home meet against Delta, even with some swimmers out due to injury or contact tracing, there were closer to 30 swimmers on the team.
And more swimmers has led to more success both as a team and individually.
Last season, the boys team set a new program record with 12 dual wins in a season. This year, the girls team did the same by winning a program-record six dual meets on the season.
Individually, 2020 graduate Natalie Blakley broke the school 100-yard butterfly record on the girls side. Over the past two years, the boys team has broken the school records in the 200 medley relay, 200 freestyle relay, 400 freestyle relay, 100 backstroke, 200 IM, 100 butterfly and diving.
Seniors Bode Malott, Kristie Malott’s son, and Carson Sehy have been a part of each of those relay records. Bode also broke the program’s 100 butterfly record last month with a 55.36, beating Craig Phemister’s record of 56.12 set in 1987.
“That one felt pretty good,” Bode said. “My freshman year, all I swam was backstroke and the 50 free, then sophomore year is when I really got into the butterfly. The guy who broke that record graduated a year younger than my dad … so to know that it was there for that long and I was able to do what someone else couldn’t feels pretty good.”
Both Bode and Sehy have also seen the program evolve over time. Both of them first began swimming in middle school, though there are quite a few Blackford swimmers and divers who were not introduced to the sport until they got to high school.
As freshmen, Bode and Sehy remember winning just one dual meet as a team. Then and now, however, the talent on the team — especially the 2021 senior class — has been evident. During the 2017-18 season, with just two freshmen and two sophomores, the boys almost broke the 200 freestyle record.
But there was doubt. Malott remembers a former coach telling him “that’s been up for 40 years, you guys are never gonna get that record.”
The next year, when Bode and Sehy were sophomores, they broke the record. And they’ve continued to break that record, and other records, since. Against Delta, the group of Lance Manley, Braxton Malott, Sehy and Bode set a new 400 freestyle record of 3:35.92. It’s one they intend to break one more time at the Jay County sectional.
It’s quite a different mentality, Sehy said, when comparing it to his freshman year.
“We went like 1-14 our freshman year,” Sehy said. “We had no seniors, no juniors, just underclassmen. As we have grown older, we have improved greatly and now we hold the all-time school win record. It’s been crazy going from that to a winning program.”
Bode added: “It’s been a cool experience to watch us go from zero to hero around here.”
While both Bode and Sehy credit the drastic shift in the program to the coaching staff, Kristie Malott deflects any credit.
“When I came in, the numbers weren’t real big,” Kristie said. “… once the numbers started coming — we had talent — I mean, I always tell people that I did not make this team at all. This team was a legit good team.”
She added: “It’s one of those things where, kids in general, people in general need someone to believe in them and just believe that they can do this.”
That belief has been contagious. Working with a winter sport at Blackford, Kristie realizes that she’s not going to get all the kids who play basketball or wrestle. But she’s gotten plenty of interest from athletes in other fall or spring sports.
Sehy, Bode, Braxton and other members of the swim team also play, or played, football at Blackford. So did senior offensive and defensive lineman Kyle Crabtree, who broke the school’s diving record with a 221.50 against South Adams in January.
Outside of the record-breakers, Kristie Malott has seen other swimmers come in with little to no experience and drop their times drastically.
“I was telling them that if they can swim, if they can go from one end to the other and not drown, I’ll take you,” Kristie said. “… If you’re not doing anything in the winter, come on. Come join us, we’ll make you a diver or a swimmer, we’ll hold your hand and get you through it.”
Where does Blackford’s swimming and diving program go from here? The girls, who the coach says has the chance to break some more school records of their own, compete in the Jay County sectional on Feb. 6. The boys will compete on Feb. 20.
After this season, five senior boys and two senior girls will have graduated, but Kristie Malott remains optimistic that interest in swimming and diving has trickled down to the middle school levels. If that’s the case, the success that Blackford swimming and diving team has seen the past few seasons might just be getting started.
“I’m hoping that, before we leave, that we’re able to recruit some new faces,” Sehy said. “… I am not worried about kids coming up soon but I’m just hoping that they don’t quit, they stick with it and I know they’ll be good in the future.”
Bode added: “I hope Blackford becomes a powerhouse. I think it would be cool to come back after college or something like that and they have a 20-man roster, which is something that we’ve never had. … If my class and the class before us, if we help set everything up for everyone else to succeed and keep the program alive, then that to me is mission accomplished.”