RIVER FALLS, Wis. -- The dry side of the pool at the Natatorium on the campus of the University of Wisconsin was loud at the 50th WIAA Swim & Dive State Championship in mid-November. So loud, some of those in dry clothes were wearing ear plugs. It was a packed house and everyone was screaming, a thousand different shards of sound piercing the dry air diversely.
On the dry side, there is the pressure of anticipation and pressure for a good start. Years and thousands of practice hours can all come down to a tenth of a second between winning and losing in swimming.
On the wet side of the pool, underneath the water, is a place River Falls High School freshmen Ellery Ottem likes the most. It's quiet and smooth underwater, in sharp contrast to the world above.
"You can clear your mind. It's relaxing," said Ottem.
The only sound she can hear is her cupped hands carving through the water at record-setting speed.
The f14-year-old started her high school career with a bang, breaking three conference freestyle records and capped it off with state titles in both the 100 & 200 yard freestyle events. Ottem's time of 1:49.54 in the 200 was the sixth fastest time ever at the WIAA state meet.
Sheepishly and bordering on apologetic, Ottem said, "I like to win."
When Ellery's hand touched the wall at the end of the 100 yard freestyle, she lifted her head out of the water and transitioned from wet to dry, decibel levels exploded from muffled to manic. She gave a quick glance to the scoreboard on her right and the only excitement worth noticing was a half-smile and her eyebrows ticked up about a half centimeter. Then, she graciously hugged the two other girls in the opposite lanes next to her.
Underneath the peaceful and poetic water, Ottem swims proud and powerful, her last 50 yards almost as fast as her first. She's creating noise and the Wisconsin and national swim world is definitely taking notice. Outside the water, crazy and chaotic, Ottem has no idea what her time was and said her favorite part of the state tournament experience was the ride to and from Madison with her teammates.
"The other girls were really fun and we got to go to Texas Roadhouse, Noodles, and Chipotle," Ottem said.
Even today, Ottem has no idea she's not too far away from catching Cedarburg's Katie Drabot's 2015 all-time state record in the 100. Drabot is a current three-time national champion swimmer at Stanford and an Olympic hopeful in 2020.
Ellery Ottum has that kind of talent and that's according to her sister, 10th grade Sadie.
"I do it for the exercise," Sadie said, "and she does it to get better. I knew she was something special right when she started swimming at 6 years old."
It's a little bit more than just exercise for Sadie, a relay school record holder in her own right, but that's really the coolest part of this story. Sadie is a talker and she loves talking about her sister, all three of her sisters, and they're all swimmers just like their all-American swimmer mom, Kelly, a nurse in River Falls.
There's not one ounce of jealousy in Sadie's voice; she is her sister's biggest fan and she's extremely excited for what's to come in two years when their younger sister, Annie, will join them on the Wildcat swim team (sister No. 4, Finely, is just in third grade).
"Ellery is so close to the Olympic trial cut, she's like a second off and that's amazing," Sadie said, "I want that to be her goal."
Ellery just shrugged and smiled, the extra attention looked as uncomfortable on her as a forced worn itchy wool sweater in your grandma’s house with the thermostat set at 85 degrees.
With Sadie by her side, I asked Ellery how many miles she swims during the high school season because it's also doubling up during club season practice (club season is most of the year).
"Two of the six days per week, it's about eight to 10 miles each day," said Ellery, "the other four days it's about half."
"What you put into practice is what you get out of it," Sadie said to Ellery in her oldest sister coaching mantra.
Senior swimmer Sydney Fleming is a relay school record holder with Ellery and Sadie and also set the school record in the 100 yard backstroke this year. Fleming placed 12th at the state meet in the 200 IM.
"Those two are like any other sisters," Fleming said. "They argue, they laugh at each other, but Sadie definitely pushes her a lot. That’s a good thing because I think Ellery can go to the Olympics."
For the Ottem sisters, it's a team effort. Sadie is helping Ellery take care of things on the dry side. When Ellery is on the wet side, it's all up to her and it has been smooth sailing so far.