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Hoover's Karl Helmuth owns up to stunner, takes high road to sensational senior swim season

The Repository logo The Repository 2/26/2021 Steve Doerschuk, The Repository
a man swimming in the water: North Canton Hoover's Karl Helmuth races to a first place finish in the 100 yard breaststroke with a time of 55.66 seconds at the Boy's Northeast District Div. I Championship at the Spire Institute on Saturday Feb. 20, 2021. © Mike Cardew, Akron Beacon Journal North Canton Hoover's Karl Helmuth races to a first place finish in the 100 yard breaststroke with a time of 55.66 seconds at the Boy's Northeast District Div. I Championship at the Spire Institute on Saturday Feb. 20, 2021.

Swimming to the state meet used to be so normal for Hoover senior Karl Helmuth.

He would show up at the Cleveland State district, trained to a T, and rock. 

This high school swim season is, as Helmuth puts it, "the furthest thing from normal you can imagine."

There was no Cleveland State district. Amid COVID-19 concerns, the university closed its pool to the OHSAA, forcing the event to the SPIRE Institute in Geneva, where these were among numerous special regulations:

"Bring two to three extra masks."

"Absolutely no rubdowns. No shaving anywhere."

"Locker room use is for restrooms only."

This much was normal: Hoover's boys and girls teams rocked. Helmuth earned automatic state-meet spots in the breaststroke and 100 freestyle and swam on two first-place relays.

Now it's on to "states" in Canton, where the meet flow is radically altered so the usual sea of humanity in C.T. Branin Natatorium is all spread out.

More: Hoover swims to state meet in three relays; Green girls go fast at new OHSAA district spot

In a sense, Helmuth has distanced himself from the crowd as the best swimmer in Stark County this winter. He arrived in the season's tournament phase ranked No. 1 in Stark County in the 50 and 100 freestyle sprints, the breaststroke, the butterfly and the individual medley. In another sense, he is the top dog on a great team.

One is permitted only two individual events in any meet. The 100 free and 100 breaststroke are Helmuth's a la carte menu for the OHSAA Division I state championships. In relays, he has friends in high places all over the county individual leader board; namely, teammates Mack Lochridge, a senior, and T.J. Bragg and Ryan Ehlers, both juniors.

a person swimming in the water: Hoover's Karl Helmuth swims the breaststroke leg of the boys 200-yard medley relay in the Northeast District Division I Championships at SPIRE Institute, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. The Hoover relay won the event. © Mike Cardew, Akron Beacon Journal Hoover's Karl Helmuth swims the breaststroke leg of the boys 200-yard medley relay in the Northeast District Division I Championships at SPIRE Institute, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. The Hoover relay won the event.

Helmuth swims the second leg of the medley relay after his brother, Peter, leads off, and that relay led off Saturday's district meet with a decisive win. Peter is a freshman who could become as good as Karl, but that's a discussion for another day.

Saturday's Division I boys state meet is Karl's swan song at Hoover. He committed to Ohio State last May. By then the coronavirus was doing its dirty work while he was training as hard as he could for a special final season as a Viking.

More: C.T. Branin Natatorium gets its OHSAA state swim meet house in order amid COVID-19 whirpool

"My senior season began right after my junior season ended," he said. "The day after state, I'm thinking about my next move. That's when my senior season started."

This is Karl's fourth state meet. The first two were eventful in a good way.

As a 2018 freshman he swam on a 400 freestyle relay that helped Hoover take fourth place in the state team standings. As a 2019 sophomore he led off the 200 freestyle relay that finished a close second to Cincinnati Xavier. He was competitive in other events at both of those state meets.

Hoover junior Karl Helmuth anchored the Vikings' winning 400 free relay at the 2020 Northeast Classic Swimming & Diving Invitational, Jan. 11, 2020. Hoover set a meet record with a time of 3:07.84. (CantonRep.com / Ray Stewart) © Raymond Stewart, THE CANTON REPOSITORY Hoover junior Karl Helmuth anchored the Vikings' winning 400 free relay at the 2020 Northeast Classic Swimming & Diving Invitational, Jan. 11, 2020. Hoover set a meet record with a time of 3:07.84. (CantonRep.com / Ray Stewart)

Heading into the 2020 state meet, everybody knew his name. Competition began on a Friday with prelims. He never made it to Saturday's finals.

The first event at prelims was the medley relay. Chris O'Connor, a sensational backstroker now at Alabama, led off. Helmuth aimed to extend the Vikings' lead as he went next in the breaststroke leg. As O'Connor cruised in, Helmuth thought he dove off his block at just the right time. Everyone was shocked when he was called for a false start.

He protested on social media, resulting in a deeper stunner, ejection from the meet. Life went on. O'Conner wound up setting a county record in the backstroke. Helmuth's ejection lingered as a strong undercurrent. 

"Some people were concerned about how fast I got out of it," Helmuth says now. "They said I should maybe take more time to think about what happened. I said, you know what ... I processed this. I've done what I needed to do to correct it. I've talked to the people I needed to talk to. I'm ready to get to the next step.

"There's a life lesson there. You've got to be responsible. That's the No. 1 thing. You've got to know the rules and the boundaries, and you have to not overstep them. I blatantly violated the rules and I needed to learn there were consequences."

He has forged ahead with life as a swimmer, violinist, academic all-star and young man of influence.

"Ohio State has good swimming and good academics," he said. "They're giving me the cake and letting me eat it, too.

"The plan is to major in math and go into actuarial science. If life changes, I'm not going to complain too much." 

More: Hoover boys crush it at district swims, blow away field in two relays, storm to state

Making the turn from high school to college is at hand. Hoover is coming off a great district meet.

"I'm sure the emotional stuff of senior year will hit as soon as state is over," he said. "For now, I've been consumed with the demands of the season, physical and mental."

Rick Morrison has gotten a kick out of Karl for quite a while now.

"He is a really good kid," the longtime Hoover coach said. "He's a really good teammate. He's a really good swimmer.

"He works hard. Karl is the best workout swimmer I ever had."

At 74, Morrison has the maturity and wisdom to take Helmuth's unfortunate 2020 ending as a bump in the road. He is much satisfied by the redemption.

Heading to the bus after the district meet, Morrison said, "Karl gave it everything he had in every race."

Morrison was founding head coach of Hoover's swim program 50 years ago. This is the only season in which he wore a plastic visor on deck amid a pandemic. Routines aren't the only things that have changed.

"I had special visions for what I wanted to do this year," Helmuth said. "I had high hopes and high goals. I wanted to swim fast and get new PRs in every event. 

"COVID made me take a step back and realize what this is about. This is about swimming for my team and doing the best we can. 

"At the end of the day I'm glad we're here. I'm glad we have the opportunity to have a postseason. I just want to see our team do the best we can do."

Reach Steve at steve.doerschuk@cantonrep.com

On Twitter: @sdoerschukREP

a person swimming in the water: Hoover junior Karl Helmuth anchored the Vikings' winning 400 free relay at the 2020 Northeast Classic Swimming & Diving Invitational, Jan. 11, 2020. Hoover set a meet record with a time of 3:07.84. (CantonRep.com / Ray Stewart) © Raymond Stewart, THE CANTON REPOSITORY Hoover junior Karl Helmuth anchored the Vikings' winning 400 free relay at the 2020 Northeast Classic Swimming & Diving Invitational, Jan. 11, 2020. Hoover set a meet record with a time of 3:07.84. (CantonRep.com / Ray Stewart)

This article originally appeared on The Repository: Hoover's Karl Helmuth owns up to stunner, takes high road to sensational senior swim season

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