Malia Francis of Rhinelander stands on deck with her bronze medal after placing third in the women’s 200-yard backstroke in the West Speedo Winter Juniors swim week in Federal Way, Wash. Saturday, Dec. 14. Francis competed in three events and improved times she posted in winning the WIAA Division 2 girls’ state championship in the 100 backstroke and 100 butterfly last month. (submitted photo)
12/21/2019 7:33:00 AM Malia Francis finishes 3rd in 200 backstroke at Jr. Nationals
Even though the girls' high school swim season is over, Rhinelander's Malia Francis just keeps swimming - fast.
The 16-year-old traveled to Seattle last week to compete in the 2019 West Speedo Winter Juniors, which featured some of the fastest swimmers in the country.
Not only did Francis compete, she reached the finals in two of her three events.
Francis finished third overall in the 200-yard backstroke and added a ninth-place finish in the 100 backstroke.
"I felt like it went really well," Francis said in a phone interview with the River News this week. "The atmosphere is really cool there. There are a lot of fast swimmers. I didn't really have very high expectations heading into the meet. I was hoping to just hang around my time, but I was able to get best times in all of my events. That was really cool."
Francis dropped 1.11 seconds from her lifetime best in the 200 backstroke as she completed the event in 1 minute, 56.07 seconds. That was well off the pace of race winner Isabella Stadden from Minnesota (1:50.50), but Francis was only 0.22 seconds behind runner-up Sydney Silver of Colorado.
Francis narrowly missed breaking into the 53-second bracket in the 100 backstroke, settling for a time of 54.01, which was 0.71 seconds faster than her WIAA Division 2 state championship performance in the event a month earlier in Madison.
"That was really encouraging," Francis said.
Francis also competed in the 100 butterfly. Though she missed the finals in the event, with the 64th-fastest time, she went 56.13 in the event. That was 0.10 seconds faster than her previous best set at last month's state meet.
It was the second time for Francis at Winter Juniors. She competed last year when the meet was held in Austin, Texas, with a best finish of 79th in the 200 backstroke. Francis met certain time standards to qualify for the meet, noting that she had already qualified in the 100 and 200 back prior to the WIAA state meet, and achieved the qualifying time in the 100 butterfly at the state.
Francis called 2019 a year of growth and is already looking ahead to 2020.
"I think I've learned a lot on my race strategies and all that stuff," she said. "It's really encouraging. I'm super excited to continue and drop some more time this season.
Before Francis gets set to defend her WIAA state championships next fall, she has much bigger goals.
"My goal is to achieve Olympic Trials, but we'll see how that goes," she said.
The trials, which determine who qualifies for Team USA for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, will be held June 21-28 in Omaha, Neb. To make it there, just like other big meets within the swim world, swimmers must obtain certain qualifying times in other events.
For Francis, qualifying for the Olympic Trials in both the 100- and 200-meter backstroke is a reasonable goal, based on her performance at the Speedo West Juniors. After conversion, her times were 1.54 seconds faster than the qualifying standard in the 100 backstroke and 3.44 seconds faster in the 200 backstroke.
The trick will be validating those performances in an Olympic-size, long course 50-meter pool.
"I'm not too far off, I haven't swam long course in a little while so it's kind of hard to tell," she said. "Hopefully, if I can get to some of those long-course meets, it will give me a better idea."
Francis said she plans to attend long course races in Milwaukee next month, Orlando, Fla. in March and Indianapolis in May in an attempt to qualify for the Olympic Trials.
Francis said she was quite surprised earlier this month when she learned that she had earned top honors from the Wisconsin Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association for her performance at the WIAA Division 2 state meet.
WISCA named Francis the D2 swimmer of the year, and named her win in the 100-yard backstroke the D2 swim of the year.
"That was super cool. It was a big surprise, I think, because there were some pretty fast girls in Division 2 this year," she said. "I think that's super cool. Being named the race of the meet, that was super cool. It was a pretty anticipated race, I realized afterward."
Francis won both the 100 butterfly and the 100 backstroke at state. Her butterfly time was seventh-fastest in D2 state history. She finished only 0.07 seconds off the D2 record in the 100 backstroke as she defeated McFarland's Mara Freeman and Edgewood's Anna teDuits, who finished 1-2 in the event at last year's state meet.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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