It was a race Tyler Connors looked forward to all last week, the 100-yard backstroke at the Orange Coast League boys' finals. It pitted him against the league's top swimmer in the event, or so he thought.
The day before the meet at Costa Mesa High, Connors didn't see the name he expected to be on the race sheet. The swimmer, Laguna Beach's Erik Juliusson, decided to skip the 100 backstroke and compete in two other individual events.
So, the one swimmer that could push Connors in his best event wasn't going to be in the finals. With Juliusson out, Connors became the league favorite. And he didn't disappoint.
The junior won the 100 backstroke, setting a personal-best time of 55.43 seconds and breaking the Costa Mesa school record.
The previous mark of 55.70, held by Brad Prickett, stood for 30 years. If there was one swimmer to top it, Coach Justin Taylor is happy Connors pulled it off.
Connors has come a long way since he was a freshman. Taylor remembers how Connors first showed up to the pool.
"He was gangly and awkward," Taylor said. "I was like, 'Really? OK. Hopefully he grows into his body soon.'"
Through hard work, Connors has developed into one of the top swimmers in the area. He's almost 6 feet tall, having grown four inches since he first swam for Taylor.
Taylor used to be taller than Connors. Taylor now looks up to Connors. Many swimmers do as well, after they get out of the pool to check their times. Connors usually has most of them beat.
Connors finished fifth in the 100 backstroke at the CIF Southern Section Division 3 championships at Riverside City College on Thursday. His 55.57 mark wasn't his fastest, but the top-five result is what he set out to achieve before the season.
He also placed seventh in the 200 individual medley, finishing in 2:02.27. The finishes at the section finals are his best in the 100 backstroke and 200 IM, which he took seventh and ninth, respectively, last season.
His times keep improving in both events. Compared to his marks from last season's section finals, Connors shaved off more than a second in the 100 backstroke and more than three seconds in the 200 IM this year.
Taylor credits Connors' work ethic and attitude for his success.
"He is the hardest working athlete I've ever come across in my seven years of coaching," said Taylor, adding that Connors earned the Costa Mesa Kiwanis Athlete of the Month award. "He shows up and says, 'Yes, coach.' He wants to get better."
Connors is thinking about swimming in college. He has another year of high school left before he decides whether he will pursue it. Taylor said Connors will.
Connors, like many of the swimmers that come through Costa Mesa, didn't start swimming competitively when he was 5. Sometimes, Taylor said he has to literally teach teenagers how to swim.
Connors knew how to swim before he enrolled at Costa Mesa. He said his cousins, Matt and Jeff Connors, influenced his decision to come out and swim for his high school. Connors said they swam and played water polo at Long Beach Poly.
At first, Connors wanted to focus on water polo. He joined the swimming team because Taylor told him it would help him in water polo, make him stronger and faster.
It turned out that swimming in a lane is what Connors excels at the most. It's just him against the time.
There is one swimmer he does want to face next year. He expects to see Juliusson again. Juliusson, a sophomore, swam the 100 backstroke at the section finals and won in 52.79, finishing almost three seconds ahead of Connors.
Connors said: "My last objective is to beat that guy."
Born: Feb. 21, 1996
Hometown: Costa Mesa
Weight: 139 pounds
Sport: Boys' swimming
Coach: Justin Taylor
Favorite food: Tacos
Favorite movie: "Inglorious Basterds"
Favorite athletic moment: "Breaking the school record [in the 100-yard backstroke]."
Week in review: Connors won the 100-yard backstroke at the Orange Coast League finals in 55.43 seconds, breaking the Costa Mesa record of 55.70 set by Brad Prickett in 1983. He also placed second in the 200 individual medley with a time of 2:02.77.