Leslie Berens and her son, Tim, had just finished eating Chinese food for dinner when he remembered they hadn’t opened their fortune cookies.
Moments after reminding his mother, from his spot on the couch, he heard her erupt with laughter from the kitchen.
Leslie’s fortune read: “This coming Saturday will be an exciting time for you.”
That Saturday, Feb. 14, was the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A swim meet at the Triangle Aquatic Center in Cary.
Leslie, the South Mecklenburg High head swim coach, led her Sabre boys’ swimming and diving team to its first state title in 26 years. Tim, a first-year assistant swim coach at Charlotte Catholic, helped coach Brian Gross and the Cougars girls win their 14th straight state championship.
“Honestly, I don’t even remember what my fortune was,” Tim said. “But the minute I saw my mom’s, I couldn’t believe it. She told her boys Friday and she kept the fortune with her all weekend.”
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw what the fortune said, but I thought it was really cool, so I carried it in my sock all weekend,” said Leslie. “There were times when I didn’t know what how it would all play out, but it was definitely a very exciting Saturday.”
The South Meck boys beat Cary Green Hope by just two points (232-230) to claim the program’s first state title since 1989.
While the Sabres didn’t win an individual event, they were consistent across the board with seven top-four finishes.
South Meck was led by the 200-yard medley relay team (junior tri-captains Graham Cooper, Nathan Murray and Graham Weaver, and freshman Jacob Rauch) that finished as state runner-up with a school-record and All-American time of 1 minute, 33.82 seconds.
Charlotte Catholic’s girls’ team beat the field by 44.5 points, winning five events. The Cougars were led by three-time meet MVP Nora McCullagh, who won two individual events and swam on two winning relays.
While the girls’ meet was a foregone conclusion, the boys’ title came down to the final event: the 400-yard freestyle relay.
Leslie summoned Tim to stand by her side for the dramatic finish.
When the Sabres relay team – with sophomores Kellen Stillman and Weston Youngblood and juniors Cooper and Murray – finished in fifth place to clinch a two-point victory, Leslie immediately looked for her son.
“Tim was actually the first person to tell me we had won by two points,” Leslie said. “But then we had to wait for three minutes to hear the official results, and it was a long three minutes.”
Tim recalls the tense moments.
“Right when they touched the wall, I knew they had won,” he said. “But while we were waiting to hear the official results, I thought my math may be wrong, so I walked away a little bit behind her. Then we heard the official announcement, she ran towards me and gave me a big hug. It was a very special moment for both of us. I was glad to be there to share it with her, but mainly I was just really happy for mom.”
Leslie is quick to deflect the credit to her team, which has made steady progress over the past few seasons. This season, the Sabres finished the regular season undefeated and won the conference title for a third straight year.
Also this year, the Sabres won their first regional title since 1991.
The Sabres’ success this year wasn’t about one or two star swimmers. South Meck won six conference championship events and four regional events.
The Sabres got podium finishes from eight swimmers in the postseason.
Leslie Berens’ team faced adversity heading into the state meet. First, junior Noah Cahan, who had two top-four individual finishes in the 4A West Regional and swam on two relays, came down with the flu and was not able to make the trip to Cary.
Then Cooper came down with what he said was a “slight fever” the morning of the state championships. Even though he was “as white as a sheet,” he said nothing was going to keep him away from the state finals.
At the team hotel before the state meet, the Sabres were addressed by former South Meck standout Rod Johnson – junior Luke Johnson’s father – who starred on the last South Meck state championship team, in 1989.
Then they watched a video sent by former South Meck star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Ricky Berens, Leslie’s oldest son.
“This team has had a special feeling all season,” Leslie said. “We have a lot of individual talent, but no one is thinking about themselves.… The whole South Meck community – from the alumni, to the parents to the students – pushed us to take the next step and bring a state championship back to South Meck.”
In a weekend of championship moments, the final embrace between Leslie and Tim Berens is a memory that will last a lifetime.
“We’ve been blessed to have a lot of great swimming moments in our family,” Leslie Berens said. “This was certainly another great family life moment that we will never forget.”
Jay Edwards is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Jay? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.