Stege family swim dynasty comes to an end at Metea Valley sectional meet
Somehow, swimming stuck, not just for Rachel Stege, but for her two sisters as well.
The Stege Sisters Swim.
Say that three times fast. It certainly won't be as fast as the sisters can swim, and, to this day, it's a mystery to them how that all came to be.
"I'm not really sure how it all happened because neither of my parents did sports. They don't swim," Stege said with a chuckle. "But all three of us took swim lessons and we just kept going and going with it.
"There's got to be a gene somewhere."
Some long lost aunt or uncle or cousin somewhere in the family had to be nimble in the pool because the Stege sisters certainly have a knack for it, and Rachel, the youngest after Julia and Kristen, is the most decorated yet.
Stege, a long, graceful 6-foot senior who helped Neuqua Valley win back-to-back team state titles in 2018 and 2019, is widely regarded as the best female high school swimmer in the state, and is one of the top 20 swimmers in the nation in the Class of 2021. She will put a big red bow on her prep career Saturday as the Illinois High School Association holds its final meets of the season at various sectional sites.
Stege, competing at the Metea Valley Sectional, is out to break the two state records she set a year ago in her signature events, the 200- and 500-yard freestyles.
Stege recorded a 1:46.66 in the 200 freestyle and a 4:44.87 in the 500 freestyle.
"I don't like to think a lot about times," the soft-spoken Stege said. "I do have goals. Unfortunately, they won't be having state record times because there is no state meet. I am hoping I can get better times than last year."
Stege won't broadcast it, but she has even bigger fish to fry.
Her eyes are on national and Olympic times, and why not? Stege has already qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials in the 200 free, the 400 free, the 800 free and the 1,500 free.
She will be competing next year for the University of Georgia, one of the best college swim programs in the country and an SEC conference rival to Tennessee, which is where sister Kristen competes as a sophomore distance swimmer.
"Rachel is so ready for college ... to get in a bigger pool," Neuqua Valley head coach Jason Niforatos said. "She's got a body type, with her length, that is so conducive to swimming. She's a great distance swimmer, but she could sprint too. She has the physical tools, the work ethic and her attitude is always 'all in.' She is a very persistent athlete and has the right mindset for being a distance swimmer."
Speaking of mindset, Stege finds sanctuary in the pool, where she spends more than 20 hours and six days a week.
She says swimming, where her length is an asset, helped her get over her self-consciousness about her height.
Meanwhile, long swims give her time to herself, and a chance to think and reflect.
She also loves the strategy that goes into a long swim.
"I started swimming longer distances when I was 9 and I was scared at first because 9-year-olds don't do long distances much," Stege said. "But I tried it and I did pretty well and I just kept doing it.
"I like keeping a pace, and thinking about how I need to swim the race. Do I go out slow or fast and do I speed up in the middle and then try to hold on? I like strategizing how I do the race and what to do if people come up on me. That's a fun part of distance swimming you don't get in the sprints where it's just one speed and it's over really fast."
Over really fast. Too fast. That's how Stege feels about her high school career.
She's sad she and her teammates won't go for a third straight state title. But she's come to peace with it.
"We're disappointed, but we've still been training really hard and we're ready (for the sectionals)," Stege said. "My friends on the team have been such a big part of swimming for me. They've made it so much more fun.
"I've been thinking about what times I'm hoping to get, but I've been focusing more about getting to compete for my team one last time."