Aspen girls swimming grateful to embrace a championship challenge

3A girls state swimming Lilly Huggard Aspen

(Ryan Casey/

The same word comes out of the lips of most student-athletes these days. They're grateful. With the way the COVID-19 pandemic has made everything uncertain, especially in the lives of the high school athletes, the opportunity to compete is something they aren't taking for granted and that they're more grateful for now than they have been in their lives.

Those feelings hold true for the Aspen girls swim team, but their appreciation for the opportunity comes with specific goals in mind. Sure the girls want to have fun and they want to appreciate the time they get to spend together, but they came close a championship trophy last year and feel like they have a chance to bring home gold in 2021.

"We're doing a lot of very clear communication and discussion about where the girls see themselves at the end of the year," coach Katie Keel said. "What do they want time-wise? Place-wise, what do they envision and how are we going to get there?"

For starters, they're going to have to get up to speed a lot faster than what they're used to. Due to the condensed season, the Skiers - like every team in the state - have to utilize every minute of practice to get themselves to their peak swimming speeds.

The thing they have going for them is that everyone is back from last year's team that finished second to Evergreen in the team standings.

Lilly Huggard, Emily Kinney, Laila Khan-Farooqi and Kayla Tehrani comprised the 200-yard medley relay team that finished second to kick off the Class 3A finals last year. Khan-Farroqi took sixth in the 200 freestyle while Huggard grabbed a third-place finish in the 200 individual medley.

Not trying to get too far ahead of themselves, the Skiers certainly see the potential they have as they hunt their first team swimming title since 2017, the only team title the program has ever won.

"We're definitely looking to improve in individuals a little bit," Khan-Farroqi said. "We're coming in with a really strong relay team this year and we might even have a 400-yard (freestyle) relay team, which we didn't have last year. We have a lot of strong swimmers."

(Photo courtesy of Katie Keel)

There is an added challenge this season with the way COVID has, at times, disrupted the flow of several high school teams through various sports. Perhaps at an earlier time in their lives than has been the case, these girls are understanding the importance of the practice time they are getting and trying to get the most out of it.

"Practice has been inconsistent," Khan-Farooqi said. "All of the coaches have been working really hard to get us in the pool which we all appreciate. It's just going to be a challenge to get into peak shape so that we can do our best at state."

In just her second year as the coach of the program, Keel is also optimistic about what she's seeing from her athletes. She also comes into this year with a touch more confidence after having time to develop relationships with her competitors and helping them develop their ability as much as possible over the last year.

"The first year is difficult with any coach to begin with, just making sure you're working together as coach and swimmers," Keel said. "Last year exceeded all of our expectations when it comes to performance as well as cohesion and a sense of (bonding) as a group."

All that's left to do is get to chasing that first-place trophy. It's a chase they're grateful to be able to attempt.