PONTIAC — Failing to advance from last year's state swim meet 100-yard backstroke preliminaries by nine hundredths of a second would have crushed the spirit of some.
When it happened to Pontiac High School's Brett Spires, the Michigan State recruit made an honest assessment: everyone involved got what they’d earned.
"It wasn't a good race for me," he confessed. "I just didn't feel good. I messed up on my turn. I messed up on my start.
"So, yes I was disappointed I didn't make the top 12. If I would have made it, I would have been surprised. I knew those (12) guys worked hard for it. It wasn't like I felt I should have been there and they shouldn't.”
Among the worst things about that near miss — besides denying Pontiac its first state swimming medal — was the doubt it produced. Was that as fast as Spires could go?
The answer came a few weeks later in a club meet when he sped a lifetime best of 51.24 seconds, well under his state time of 51.83. His Pontiac High School record of 51.72 set last season ranks fifth in Pantagraph area history.
Despite the fatigue of twice-a-day training this season, he has managed an area-leading 52.10, which ranks seventh statewide. The state qualifying standard for the Feb. 17 Normal Community Sectional is 53.32.
"I'm pretty fast compared to how I was last year," Spires said. "I feel like I'm in a really good place with more time to drop in the future."
Spires, who placed 26th at state as a sophomore, believes his familiarity with that atmosphere will settle his nerves for the Feb. 23-24 state meet at Evanston.
"I think I'll be better at state, be more calm," he said. "I just get so worked up. I get a little too on edge at state."
The 5-foot-10, 165-pounder also holds school records of 1:50.60 in the 200 freestyle, 2:03.59 in the 200 individual medley, 49.31 in the 100 freestyle, 53.98 in the 100 butterfly and 5:01.10 in the 500 freestyle.
"I've been good at the back since I started in a summer league 10 years ago," Spires said. "I've got big shoulders and a small waist. I'm built for it I guess."
Pontiac coach Mike Lucas says Spires is especially fast underwater.
“His stroke is very efficient,” added Lucas. “He’s got great flexibility in his ankles and that’s a contributing factor. He’s able to keep his body in a very good position.”
Spires, who will major in computer science, chose Michigan State after also looking at Iowa and Miami of Ohio.
"The coaching staff, even when I started talking to them, was unbelievably supportive compared to all of the other coaches I was talking to," he said. "I felt it was the best choice overall for me."
Lucas sees Michigan State as a good fit for Spires.
“I think a lot of people would be intimidated by the workload he’s going to have to endure,” Lucas said. “I think he’s actually looking forward to it.”
Last fall, Spires began training with the Bloomington-Normal Swim Club and Coach Bob Loy. The club gave Spires quality training partners. In Pontiac, he has no peers, but he doesn't view that as a detriment.
"Even though they may not be as fast as I am, they are still trying as hard as they can," he said. "So it's fun to see in what ways we can challenge each other."
In between sets, it’s not unusual for Spires to cheer on teammates.
“He loves to jump in there and encourage,” Lucas said. “He also likes to jump in there and teach whenever he can. It’s not uncommon for me to make use of his swimming IQ. Some coaches might think that’s a bad choice, but I don’t.”
Spires has fun working with Lucas, who also coaches cross country and track.
“Mike’s a great guy,” Spires said. “He’s given so much to the team. He’s honestly one of the best coaches you could have for a high school team.”
Lucas calls Spires the best swimmer in school history. In the sectional, Spires will also likely be in the 100 butterfly, the 200 medley relay and the 400 freestyle relay.
“I know that a big swim, once he tapers, is going to happen,” said Lucas, who remembers how disappointed Spires was at last year’s state meet.
“The good thing is he didn’t become demoralized and stop working. For some athletes, that would have derailed them."
Now the fact of the matter is 12 men will medal in the state meet backstroke and each will have to earn it. Spires can live with that.