Led by Emma Van Laar (second from right), the Gilroy High 200 free relay team of Kim Ortiz, Alexa Bennett and Hannah Stelzner recorded a time of 1:44.78 in the CCS Finals. Photo by Robert Eliason.
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Emma Van Laar admits the monotony of swimming lap after lap gets to her occasionally. 

“I really do get bored of it at times, and that’s when I know I should set new goals so I can stay motivated,” said Van Laar, who just completed her freshman year at Gilroy High. “I try to achieve those so I can keep trying for different goals.”

Van Laar certainly achieved her goals in an impressive freshman season that culminated in the Central Coast Section Championship Finals on May 29. Only a handful of swimmers from the South Santa Clara County and San Benito County area in the last several years have made two individual final races at the CCS Meet, making what Van Laar did all the more impressive. 

She finished with the seventh fastest time in the 200-yard freestyle in 1:55.39 and eighth fastest time in the 500 free in 5:14.45, a new personal-record. Before the CCS Prelims on May 28, Van Laar said she would be satisfied if she hit 1:55 for the 200 free and went sub 5:16 for the 500 free. In the 500 free, Van Laar got out fast, swimming her first lap in 28.90 seconds. She was consistently in the 31-second range throughout before going 30.79 seconds in the final lap. 

“I had a lot of fun this year swimming during the high school season,” she said. “I’ve known some of my teammates for a very long time, and swimming for the high school is such a different experience than swimming for the club team.”

Van Laar also anchored Gilroy’s 200-free relay team of Hannah Stelzner, Alexa Bennett and Kim Ortiz, ripping off a 23.52 split time. The team advanced to the CCS ‘B’ final, where it finished 13th out of 16 teams in 1:44.78. Ortiz had a 27.70 split, a huge season-best. 

Van Laar actually hit individual CCS qualifying times in the 50 and 100 free as well, but elected to compete in the distance freestyle events for the Prelims. Gilroy coach Doug Pickford said Van Laar is a special talent capable of doing even greater things in the years ahead. 

“It’s fairly unusual to have someone that good in the freestyle qualify at both the sprint and distance standards,” he said. “She’s the real deal and will continue to improve because she works real hard.”

In most cases, even the standout athletes who enter the high school sports scene have a variety of technique issues, especially in swimming. However, Pickford said Van Laar’s stroke technique is superb. 

“I find no flaw relative to her freestyle form, which is pretty unusual because I have a pretty picky eye,” Pickford said. “But her freestyle is textbook.”

The top boys swimmer from Gilroy this season was Lucas Bissell, who barely missed qualifying for CCS after recording a 22.70 in the 50 free during the season, 11/100ths off the standard.

“I’m thrilled with how fast he went,” Pickford said. “He will continue to play water polo and be an aquatic athlete in college. He started out in the 24-25 second range last year and got that down all the way to 22.70. That is a spectacular improvement. I think he is satisfied with the final result because he worked his tail off.”

With the arrival of Van Laar, the future is now for the Gilroy High swim program—and CHS, which had freshman Thomas Aguero finish sixth in the boys 100 yard breaststroke in 58.92 seconds. If Aguero continues to develop, there’s no telling how much he can accomplish. Out of the five swimmers who finished ahead of him, three were seniors. That means he’ll return next season with the third fastest time among all of this year’s CCS competitors. 

The last time an individual from the South County and San Benito County area won a CCS swim title was, well, let’s just say it’s been a while. Youth has been served for the local swim teams this season, but it’s no surprise. Swimmers can excel at an early age, and, in Van Laar’s case, she comes from a family of swimmers. Emma’s older sister, Mackenzie, also competed for Gilroy this past season. 


GILROY HIGH—Anyone interested in playing football should meet on June 14 at 3pm at the 10th Street lot by the softball field. Covid rules will be in effect, so please wear a mask and stay 6 feet apart from others. Contact [email protected] for questions and further information.

Recent Gilroy High graduate Lucas Bissell was a water polo and swim standout. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Emma Van Laar, seen here swimming at a dual meet earlier this season, capped off a terrific freshman season with a 7th place finish in the 200-yard freestyle and 8th-place showing in the 500 free in the CCS Finals. Photo by Robert Eliason.
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Emanuel Lee primarily covers sports for Weeklys/NewSVMedia's Los Gatan publication. Twenty years of journalism experience and recipient of several writing awards from the California News Publishers Association. Emanuel has run eight marathons with a PR of 3:13.40, counts himself as a true disciple of Jesus Christ and loves spending time with his wife and their two lovely daughters, Evangeline and Eliza.


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