The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.
College of San Mateo headed to East Los Angeles College for the California Community Athletic Association Swimming and Diving Championships full of promise that this was the year the program would bring home its first-ever individual gold medal.
The Bulldogs were pinning their hopes on two hotshot women’s swimmers — freshman Erica Vong and sophomore Morgan Smith — who together were competing in a total of 10 events over the three-day swim meet. The tandem would deliver, totaling two first-place, four second-place and two third-place finishes between them.
As Day 2 was winding down, however, and CSM had just three legitimate chances to claim gold remaining, seventh-year head coach Randy Wright started getting a little bit antsy about delivering on the gold-medal promise.
“You’re like, ‘oh man, we’re starting to run out of chances this year,’” Wright said.
Then, in the Bulldogs’ final swim of the day, Vong broke through to become the first CSM swimmer ever to top the state podium, as the freshman took first place in the 100-yard backstroke with a personal-best time of 54.93 seconds.
The native of Macau, China has only been stateside for a year, learning English as a collegiate freshman while emerging as a swimming superstar. The dichotomy lends to something of a Clark Kent/Superman persona. Out of the pool, she’s soft spoken and learning to adapt to a new culture half a world away from home. But once she hits that water — full-on superhero.
“Her smile was as big as I’ve ever seen,” Wright said of Vong’s reaction to out-touching the field in the 100 back. “Her smile was ear to ear. It’s one of those things that makes coaching worth it.”
Smith — an El Camino graduate in her second year with the Bulldogs — learned of Vong’s otherworldly swimming talents last season, well before the two met. The way Smith explains it, Vong’s reputation most certainly preceded her.
“She’s fantastic,” Smith said. “I remember Randy talking about her last season before I saw her and met her. I remember him telling me her times and I was in awe.”
And upon witnessing Vong swim at CSM for the first time, Smith was blown away.
“Just swimming next her I was like, ‘wow. I have to try to keep up with this girl,’” Smith said.
In a manner of speaking, that’s precisely what Smith did. And now, she and Vong are joined in CSM swimming immortality. After Vong celebrated CSM’s first ever gold-medal victory at state, Smith showed up on Day 3 and won the second, topping the podium in the 200 butterfly with a time of 2 minutes, 7.62 seconds.
Smith said the thought of contending for a state title — let alone winning one — didn’t enter her mind for most of her two-year collegiate career. In fact, it wasn’t until she knew for certain she advanced to the state finals this year by virtue of her performance at the Coast Conference finals April 23 that the ambition really struck her.
“It definitely wasn’t even a thought in my head last year and a majority of this year it wasn’t either,” Smith said. “I would say going into this weekend is when it became a real chance.”
Entering the meet seeded No. 2 in the 200 fly, Smith knew she could compete with No. 1 seed Madison Faulkner of Chabot because of the storied history between the two. Their friendly rivalry over the past two years resulted in an any-given-day dynamic, with each defeating the other on several occasions.
“It was fun because we both pushed each other hard,” Smith said.
At the Coast Conference finals, Faulkner got the better of Smith with a conference-record time. But the faster pool of East Los Angeles College saw Smith prevail over her rival in their final community college showdown.
“These two girls are going back and forth,” Wright said. “Madison got her with the record at conference. And here we are at state. [They both] swam a lot of races … but I know Morgan. She had that look. She had the eye for a title.”
Smith swam a sound tactical race, trailing for the opening 100 yards or so by design. A consistently strong finisher, Smith drew even with Faulkner on the penultimate lap. And when Smith hit the last turn, she burst off the wall with enough breathing room to know the only thing standing between her and gold was a straight shot to the final wall.
Each Vong and Smith took individual silver medals as well. They also shared in two silvers as part of the women’s relay team.
Vong’s silver in the 200 individual medley on Day 1 was arguably the most exciting finish of the entire meet, with sophomore Alexa Clayfield of Orange Coast College — en route to the women’s team gold — claiming first place in the event. Clayfield out-touched Vong by 17 one-hundredths of a second. Yet Vong’s time of 2:06.89 was still good enough to set a new Coast Conference record.
“She swam a great race,” Wright said. “It was back and forth and to lose by less than half a second was tough … but she swam her heart out.”
The CSM women’s relay team of Vong, Smith, Gabby Montoya and Brittani Byrne then captured silver in the 400 medley relay with a time of 4:01.07; Orange Coast ran away with the gold in 3:54.77.
The Bulldogs relay squad then netted silver in the 200 medley relay with a 1:49.05; Orange Coast took gold with a state-record time of 1:44.27.
“[Orange Coast was] by far the cream of the crop for 2016,” Wright said.
Smith followed with silver in the 100 fly with a time of 57.16 seconds, topped by Golden West College sophomore Madison Varisco’s 56.47.
The CSM women’s team also took third place in the 200 freestyle relay with a 1:38.58. The foursome also placed sixth in the 400 free relay with a 3:39.72.
Vong rounded out the meet by claiming bronze in the 200 back with a 2:03.13, finishing just behind silver-medalist Clayfield (2:02.53) and gold-medalist Varisco (2:02.24).
Montoya topped the consolation field in two events, taking ninth place in the 100 breaststroke with a 1:10.53; she took ninth in the 200 breast with a 2:30.61.
For the CSM boys’ team, sophomore Javier Rosas capped his community college career with a seventh-place finish in the 100 free with a time of 46.12 seconds. He also placed eighth in the 200 free with a 1:44.04.
“He may have only finished in seventh place but I don’t care,” Wright said. “We had a goal from two years ago … and both times were personal bests.”
For Smith, to end her community college career with the flourish of an individual state championship marks an astounding growth over her two years at CSM. While at El Camino, she was a perennial winner in Peninsula Athletic League competition, but would get lost in the shuffle come the Coast Conference Section championship.
“I think it was the atmosphere,” Smith said of her emergence at CSM. “It was more I got to college and I befriended a lot of people on the swim team. And I had [Wright] there pushing me because he knew I could be stronger than I was; and it kind of made a light go on in my head … and I just put 100 percent in it. And it turned out really well.”