By Colin Becht
Palo Alto Online Sports
A year ago, Sacred Heart Prep sophomore Ally Howe of Portola Valley was still working with her developmental coach. On Thursday, she became a Junior National champion.
Howe, who swims with Palo Alto Stanford Aquatics, earned the gold medal in the 100 backstroke at the Speedo Junior National Championship. She just edged Lacey Locke by six hundredths of a second at the Avery Aquatic Center at Stanford, clocking 1:02.77 to qualify for next summer's Olympic Trials.
"I looked up at the board and just was really shocked that I got in first," Howe said.
Since Howe began competitive swimming, she worked with Bruce Smith, her developmental coach at PASA's Alpine site in Portola Valley. Less than a year ago she moved up to work with Tony Batis, and Thursday's final was the first individual final in which she qualified at the Junior Nationals.
Batis said Smith "did a great job in getting her to where she was ready to be a senior-level athlete.
"I would be lying to say that, 'Okay, I waved the magic wand and she got fast,'" Batis said. "Bruce did a great job of developing her and getting her to this level. I was able to piggyback on that."
That didn't make Thursday's victory any less surprising though.
"I won't lie to you, that was a surprise," Batis said. "She's been kind of up and down over the last week and a half, but in spurts she has shown signs that she could be awesome."
Howe sat in fourth place after the first 50 meters, but even that represented overcoming a pitfall in which she has sometimes found herself.
"Normally I tend to go out kind of slow and really back-half races," Howe said. "So I think the goal for me was just to really go out fast and really just try to hang on."
Howe was pushed to the finish by three other swimmers who were within .20 seconds of her at the finish line.
"Even at the end of the race, I still thought she was in about third or fourth," Batis said.
Less than an hour later, Howe was back in the pool, achieving even greater success as she, along with PASA teammates Jasmine Tosky, Rachael Acker and Alicia Grima, set a Junior Nationals record in the 800 freestyle relay. The foursome's time of 8:12.40 crushed the field by nearly six seconds and broke the meet record that Howe and Tosky helped set a year ago.
"The depth that we have right now is pretty unparalleled, but I think that's just a result of our program growing," Batis said. "We've got a lot of sites, a lot of talented kids coming up."
Illustrating that depth, PASA 'B' relay team of Haley Sims, who will be swimming at Stanford in the fall, Julia Ama, Cassandra Lincoln and Camille Cheng placed fifth overall.
The gold in the relay was Tosky's fourth of the meet. She picked up her third earlier in the day when she won a close finish in the 100 breaststroke. Tosky's time of 1:10.24 edged Samantha Pochowski by .35 seconds.
Tosky, like Howe, left some work for herself after the first half of the race, needing to catch three swimmers in the final 50 meters. Her 37.07-second second lap did the trick just fine.
"At the end of every race, you've got to just make sure you hold your stroke and try not to fall off," Tosky said. "You have to try to accelerate the last 25 meters."
While some of Tosky's other wins have come in more dominant fashion, Thursday's gold was equally impressive considering that Tosky regards the breaststroke as her third-best stroke.
"Breaststroke is like my fun event always. I swim it sometimes," Tosky said. "I don't swim it often."
Incoming Stanford freshman Jack Lane earned fourth place in the 200 freestyle final, but missed the Olympic Trials qualifying time by a mere four hundredths of a second.
Acker placed 10th in the consolation final of the 200 freestyle while fellow PASA member Jeremie Dezwirek took third in the 100 backstroke bonus final.