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New event, new coach for CEC

Cloquet-Esko-Carlton senior swimmer Makayla Suominen swims during practice this week. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal1 / 4
Cloquet-Esko-Carlton senior Abby Johnson practices with the swim team's group of divers during practice Monday, Aug. 27. The new middle school pool allows the Lumberjacks to compete in diving for the first time in nearly two decades. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal2 / 4
Cloquet-Esko-Carlton senior swimmer Makayla Suominen swims during practice Monday, Aug. 27. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal3 / 4
New Cloquet-Esko-Carlton swim coach Rachel Peterson (standing, far left) talks to swimmers during practice Monday, Aug. 27. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal4 / 4

Abby Johnson has been on the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton girls swim team since she was an eighth-grader, but the now-17-year-old Cloquet senior admits she doesn't know the last time the Lumberjacks had diving as an option.

That would have been 2005, when Johnson was 4 years old.

Diving was once prevalent at CEC, but pool depth rules and regulations eliminated the event at the old Herb Drew pool in 2001, as its 9-foot deep end was too shallow for the needed 12 feet.

While the springboard was removed, the program still dove at road meets up until 2005, when the event eventually lost interest and numbers, then vanishing.

Yet, with the Cloquet Middle School being called the Lumberjacks' new swimming haven last fall, CEC now has two springboards, 12 feet of necessary water depth and plenty of interested divers, like Johnson, excited to finally return it.

"It's exciting. We're the first ones to be diving in this pool," Johnson said after practice Monday, Aug. 27. "It's like we're the forerunners. We're bringing it back."

Johnson is one of nine divers she noted, including the only senior, but the small group of girls diving for volunteer coaches Nancy Cooper and Annette Snyder worked hard in the offseason, are improving daily and most of all, are brave.

Diving isn't as simple as one may believe — and we're not talking cannon balls and belly flops. These teens are acrobatic, precise and have a lot of twisting and turning during limited air time. Serious injuries are possible, and it's not uncommon to see bruises and black eyes for some.

Makayla Suominen is arguably the best swimmer in program history. The Cloquet senior holds the school record in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle, while she's been to the state meet every year since eighth grade, including winning the Class A state title in the 50 freestyle in 2016. But diving?

"It's something I wouldn't have the guts to do," Suominen said. "You don't fully realize what goes into those gorgeous dives. Honestly, I have a lot of respect for those divers."

"I shy away when I see the divers go in," added junior Maddie Dostal, a state entrant the past two years. "I'd maybe do one or two, but I'd be scared out of my mind."

It's scary to think how much the divers will help CEC this fall. While not offering the event over the years, points were forfeited, yet the Lumberjacks still remained competitive. In comparison to football, it would be like starting kickoff down by a couple touchdowns. Now though, those times are gone.

"We're going to be like superheroes on the team," Johnson said jokingly. "Finally, though, we'll settle the score."

And a throng of support from their teammates and coaches, the divers are optimistic in their rookie season. In fact, Johnson placed third at the recent Lake Superior Conference jamboree, while she dove off the springboard Tuesday, Aug. 28, during their season-opener against Grand Rapids in CEC's first home diving event in nearly 20 years.

"All I can say is exciting," said Johnson, who has six dive routines. "We're building something great here. I have the confidence that it is going to stay — it's not going anywhere."

That can be echoed about the program, which has grown seemingly exponentially over time. Suominen estimated there were 15 girls swimming six years ago when she started as a seventh-grader. This season, there are almost three times that.

Despite the graduation of five seniors, including Delaney Anderson, who now swims at the University of Minnesota Morris, CEC has 43 girls in the pool, as well as first-year coach Rachel Peterson.

Peterson takes over for Kayla Cotner, who helped shape the program for the past four years until stepping away to pursue an elementary education degree with Winona State.

Cotner, who still works at nearby Cloquet Community Education and helps organize youth swimming camps for children, has an office no more than 100 feet from the pool doors. She has been a vital assistance as Peterson busily takes over the reins.

"Kayla set a foundation here that is pretty incredible," Peterson said. "She's given them all great work ethic, enjoyment and it's grown from there. It gives us a head start."

Suominen, just one of two seniors along with Johnson, is the head of the program. A 5-foot-8 speedster who is pursuing Division I or II swimming next fall, Suominen has placed third in the 100 freestyle the past two seasons at state, while a year after her 50 freestyle crown, she was runner-up in 2017.

As humble as they come, Suominen said while titles in both events are enticing, she's working on lowering her times. Still, one's not smart to bet against one of the state's fastest.

"And she's always trying to get faster," Johnson said.

"I am beyond blessed to be able to call Makayla one of my best friends," added Dostal, who also swims on the 200 medley and freestyle relays with Suominen. "She's taught me so much and has made me a better person and swimmer."

Dostal, who along with Suominen, has been on the varsity since seventh grade. She hopes to excel again in the relays along with her signature event, the 100 backstroke. She may even try the 50 freestyle against Suominen, she admitted.

"To share a pool with a state champ is pretty awesome," Dostal added with a smile. "I'm not ready to see her go yet."

Nor is the 6-foot Peterson, a positive 43-year-old from Carlton who is a tad nervous for her first season. She also has three children who swim: Emma, 13; Julia, 11; and Jonas, 8.

"I'll have to start a boys team," she said. "I'd love to."