When Zack Lambert touched the wall at the Triangle Aquatic Center in Cary, he made school history.
With a first place finish in the boys' 100-yard backstroke event at the 3A state swimming championship, Lambert gave Hickory Ridge High School its first ever individual or team state title.
The school, in its third year, sent five swimmers from the boys' team and four swimmers from the girls' team to compete at the state meet. The boys finished sixth in the state while the girls finished 25th, giving them a 10th place finish in the overall score.
Swim coach Debbie Benfield said she is proud of the individual accomplishments that her swimmers earned. In addition to Lambert's state title, the girls' relay became the first group of girls to make the state finals.
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"For the team it's a shot in the arm," said Benfield. "It validates all the work they have done."
Hickory Ridge athletic director Adam Despot said that the title was great for the entire program and shows how far it has come in just three years.
"I think it motivates all the athletes," he said. It shows "we can compete on all levels."
The title is even more impressive considering what Lambert had to overcome to win it.
Lambert finished second in the preliminary race to Bobby Bittner of West Carteret High School, a swimmer who Lambert said he has had a "friendly rivalry" with since they have been competing against each other for several years. Bittner won the event at the state meet last year when Lambert finished third.
When it came time for the finals race, Lambert was focused on one thing.
"I just really wanted to get first," he said.
Lambert shaved a full two seconds off his preliminary time, beating Bittner by just over half a second.
"That's crazy," said Benfield about his performance.
Lambert doesn't seem as surprised about his significant drop in time.
"I've always performed better under pressure," he said. "It's usually pretty dramatic when I drop time."
Lambert started swimming in a summer YMCA league when he was 6 years old. His coaches noticed his ability and recommended him to the Mecklenburg Aquatic Club, where his been swimming ever since, except for a one-year stint with Stingray Aquatics.
But the 6-foot-3 junior with wild blond hair almost stopped competing two years ago.
He had two knee surgeries that kept him out of swimming for a full year when he was a freshman at Hickory Ridge. He questioned whether he wanted to return to the sport after the operations, but decided he couldn't imagine himself not swimming.
Those "ups and downs" in his swimming career is what made last week's win even sweeter, he said.
"I was really overwhelmingly happy," said Lambert. "It was one thing just getting first place, but I was back and ready to compete."
Since Lambert swims year-round for MAC, Benfield only sees him about once a week but says that he has a positive affect on the whole team.
"He gets along well with everybody," she said. "He doesn't have to be the center of attention, but people gravitate to him."
Benfield said that Lambert has a "quiet confidence" about him, which he shows when he talks about his reaction to winning the school's first state title.
"Dang, that's pretty cool," he said. "I'm the first ever."
How the rest of the county did
Jay M. Robinson turned in the most impressive team scores with a sixth place girls finish and a fourth place boys finish. The Bulldogs failed to bring home any individual titles, but finished second in the boys' 200-yard medley relay (swimmers Griffin Fiedler, Chad Heiser, Rene Brown and Forrest Cannon) and Heiser also finished second in the boys' 200-yard freestyle event.
First-year school Cox Mill also had a strong showing at the meet with their boys finishing tied for seventh and the girls 17th.
The Concord girls finished 17th while the boys finished 32nd. The Northwest Cabarrus boys and girls finished 26th and 32nd respectively.
The Mount Pleasant and A.L. Brown boys finished tied for 19th.