Photo: The smile you make when you qualify for sectionals
The first thing that hits you visiting the Higginbottom Pool in the bowels of the new Belmont High School is walking smack into the highest humidity this side of the Amazon jungle. Unlike the pool in the old school, which had doors leading outside the field house and large glazed windows, the new configuration is hermetically sealed to the outside world, where the water vapor is so concentrated that clothes become immediately uncomfortably moist and electronics come close to shorting out.
Now add to that 50 or 100 student-athletes all screaming and chanting at ear-splitting teenage levels for most of an hour, and you’d swear this is a circle that Dante would likely add to the Inferno.
And Belmont High Girls’ Swimming and Diving program would not have it any other way.
Like their cross country and volleyball breatharian, Belmont High swimming and diving were road warriors for the best part of three years. It meant training and competing in far-off Wellesley venues or less-than-ideal settings, such as a local country club whose pool was short on amenities and length.
Finally, this year, the girls could call the Higginbottom theirs. And they responded. More than forty swimmers and divers came together for a successful 2022 season, going 6-2 in dual meets and putting up times and numbers that spoke of the resurgence to swimming and diving prominence for a program that less than a decade ago finished second in three consecutive Division 2 state championships.
The team was led by top swimmer and chief cheerleader, senior co-capt Alique Stepanian, who stuck with the program during the lean times, and in her final high school campaign, was a loud presence in the water and on the deck. Stepanian was a freestyle specialist who came off an undefeated dual meet season in individual events while bringing her four years of varsity experience to a cadre of younger teammates.
“It’s a unique experience being a captain of this team, especially as we are a varsity team,” said Stepanian, noting it’s a squad that includes all four grades. “We are one team, and we all practice together. So you got freshmen to seniors, which I get the chance to motivate and, sometimes, just listen. It was great being a freshman and having all those senior and upperclassmen mentors, and I’ve been really happy to pay it forward and mentor all the younger swimmers.”
After a strong league championship and a sixth place in the North Sectionals, Belmont was primed for its best on the big stage. In the state Division 2 finals held at MIT on Nov. 13, Stepanian achieved a personal goal of a podium finish at states capturing third in the 50-yard free, completing the sprint in 25.27 seconds. Stepanian would take fourth in the 100 free in 54.32, taking more than a second from her pre-finals best.
Belmont scored third in diving as Robyn Tonomura-MacDonald scored 398.350 points, one of only two sophomores in the top ten.
Stepanian joined juniors Rowan Dargon, Mia Murphy, and senior Clara Bhagwati to score a solid fourth in the meet’s finale, the 400-yard free relay, in 3:49.92. Swimming her fourth race of the afternoon, Stepanian anchored the team home in 56.01 to hold off the foursome from powerhouse Chelmsford.
Also scoring at states, the two Marauders’ Mia’s – juniors Murphy and Taylor – with Bhagwati and Dargon finished 10th in the 200 Medley; Mia Murphy was 11th in the 50 free, senior Heidi Zhang 12th in the 200 free; Bhagwati was also 12th in the 500 free, Dargon, Stepanian, and Mia Taylor teamed up with junior Abby Hill to finish 7th in the 200 free relay, while sophomore Katrina Chan (9th) and Taylor (11th) came home with points in the 100 breaststroke.
Belmont cracked the top five in the final team score finishing in fifth with 165 points, its best performance since 2017.