Something in the water? Yes, and it's swimming backstroke

When Cabarrus County hails itself as the place "Where Racing Lives," is it referring to motorsports or the backstroke?

With all due respect for the area's rich tradition of stock car racing and the industry's economic impact, in high school swimming, Cabarrus County is quietly developing a reputation for having some of the state's best in the boys' 100-yard backstroke event.

Led by 3A state champion Zack Lambert of Harrisburg Hickory Ridge, the South Piedmont Conference (made up of all Cabarrus County schools) produced seven of the top eight finishers at the West regional last year. The top 12 qualify for the state meet.

Of those seven, six of them return this season, and four of those six finished in the top seven at the state meet last season.

Is there something in the water?

Yes: a bunch of athletes who compete year-round and are strong swimmers in more events than just the backstroke.

Seven qualified for states

Finishing behind Lambert in last year's regional final was Kannapolis Brown's Davied Sanchez (second place), Jeff Gilley (Northwest Cabarrus, third), who graduated in 2010, Nick Cannon (Cox Mill, fifth), Griffin Fiedler (Concord Robinson, sixth), Cole Harris (Brown, seventh), and Ryan Steigerwalt (Hickory Ridge, eighth).

Among the state qualifiers from last year, Steigerwalt, now a senior, is the only one who doesn't compete in a year-round swim program. While he qualified for regionals as a sophomore, last year was the first time he reached the state meet.

Because of an injury, Lambert missed the state meet as a freshman. In his sophomore year, he placed third in the backstroke.

"I actually figured out I was good at the 100 backstroke only three years ago," Lambert said. "It was a really drastic change from one season to the next. I went from 56 (seconds) to the low 53s. It was a huge change in my stroke. I was getting really relaxed. That's a key in the backstroke. It was like I unlocked a secret."

At last season's state meet, Lambert finished second in the preliminary round, only to rebound with a winning time of 54:18 in the finals. Last summer, he qualified for USA Swimming long-course Junior Nationals in Irvine, Calif.

Finishing fourth at the state meet was Sanchez, who was a freshman. His teammate, Harris, now a junior, placed 11th.

Treated like celebrities

Brown coach Lauren Smith said Sanchez and Harris are treated almost like celebrities by their teammates, who are sometimes in awe of their team's only year-round swimmers.

Sanchez and Steigerwalt both swam the opening backstroke legs on their teams' entries in the 200-yard medley relay last year. Brown finished 10th in the state; Hickory Ridge, competing with Lambert in the butterfly leg, placed fourth.

Finishing as the 3A state runner-up was the medley relay team from Concord Robinson. Swimming the backstroke leg for the Bulldogs was freshman Griffin Fiedler, who also placed sixth in the 100-yard backstroke at the state meet.

Fiedler's time of 58:92 at the state meet broke a five-year-old school record. In Robinson's first meet of the 2010-11 season, he beat that mark with a time of 57:58.

"Griffin underestimates his own abilities," said Robinson coach Beverly Kopelic. "Last year, he came in at 107 pounds, and that was probably wet. This year he came in little more than that. ... He has a great future. It's just so great when they're humble about it."

Because the year-round swimmers are usually sound in all events, they don't swim any certain strokes, including the backstroke, every meet. Likewise, they often qualify for regionals in several individual events but are permitted to compete in only two.

So when it comes time to declare their regional events, coaches and swimmers often compare their times with those of other swimmers and decide which events they have the best chance in.

In Cabarrus County, that's often the backstroke.