Aaron Williams first jumped into a swimming pool about 10 years ago, taking swim lessons at the YMCA in Vineland along with his two brothers because the boys’ mom feared for their safety after the family added a backyard swimming pool.
The rest, as they say, is history.
On Sunday, Williams stood atop the podium as the first state swimming champion in Williamstown High School history, capturing the 50-yard freestyle sprint in 20.61 seconds at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions at the Gloucester Tech pool in Deptford.
Williams outdued Cherry Hill East’s Ryan Cortes (20.81) in a sprint to the finish (SEE A VIDEO OF THE 50 FREESTYLE RACE BELOW).
“There was no strategy at all – just slash and dash,” said Williams, a senior. “I go in there, put my head down and go as fast as I possibly can. I was confident, but I always need to be humble. I don’t go there expecting to win because I know my competitors are fast. That’s something you can’t afford to do in swimming.”
In that same race, two lanes away, Williams’ twin brother Reuben swam to a fourth-place finish in 21.41.
“We do everything together and to share this with him was just amazing,” Aaron Williams said. “I wouldn’t be this fast without him, and that’s a fact. He pushes me every day. My motivation was looking up at that wall and seeing a first-place finish, and being a state champ. It was nice to see the hard work pay off and to make history today.”
The Williams’ brothers will graduate from Williamstown holding school records in every individual event except for the 500 free.
It’s an amazing legacy, but for Aaron Williams, earning a spot atop the podium at the Meet of Champions meant so much more.
“Being one of only a handful of black swimmers as I look around the pool deck, at first when I was little it was a little bit intimate, just knowing that there aren’t a lot of people that look like me in the sport, he said. “But then I saw swimmers like David Curtiss (former Pennington School standout now at North Carolina State), who was a big inspiration. I was with him in a lot of meets.
“Plus, my parents (Steven and Danielle) wanted to instill in me that just because there aren’t a lot of people that look like you, it doesn’t mean you don’t belong there. So, I just really look at this as trying to inspire other swimmers who look like me, that you can do this too.”
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Williams later added a third-place finish in the 100 fly with a personal and school record time of 49.52, coming in just behind Tenafly’s Aaron Baltaytis (a meet record 48.30) and Cortes (49.29).
He entered the 50 free and 100 fly with the top seeds after swimming the fastest times in Saturday’s preliminary heats, not worrying that he might put a target on his back by swimming so fast.
“When I get in the pool, I race all out,” Williams said. “When I swam in the prelims, I went all out. When I swam in the finals, I went all out. I kept the same mentality.”
Williamstown coach Matthew Dicken would expect nothing less.
He was thrilled to finally have a state champion.
“Coming from a big football school, it’s an amazing feeling,” Dicken said. “He deserves everything he’s getting right now. He’s a very humble individual, but he’s very confident in his abilities and works hard every single day.
“It’s one of the most exciting feelings as a coach. To see the fruits of his labor is amazing. As a coach, I feel great but I’m so happy for him. He’s really come into his own.”
Reuben Williams finished his day by placing eighth in the 100 breaststroke (a personal best 57.84), capping his career with a pair of top-eight finishes at the MOC.
“It’s been a really long journey,” he said. “My freshman year I didn’t make it to states. My sophomore year I had injuries and didn’t place well, and my junior year it was canceled (due to the pandemic). So, this was my one year to get a go at this meet healthy and I came in with a good attitude. My goal was top eight in my events and that’s what I did, so I couldn’t be happier.”
Next year, the Williams brothers will continue their swimming careers at different colleges, with Aaron heading to Lehigh and Reuben to Rider, but they’ll always remember their special journey together.
“We’ve trained together since we were eight years old, always pushing each other to be better,” Reuben Williams said. “He’s my brother and best friend, and he’s always been there for me. Even though I was in the pool with him today, I was rooting for him as well. I couldn’t be prouder.”
It was also the final meet for Gloucester Tech senior Nolan Jess, who placed third in the 100 free (a personal-best 46.80) and 11th in the 100 breaststroke (58.93).
Jess joined Gabe Condit, TJ Moderski and Luc Strietz to finish fifth in the 200 medley relay (1:36.11), and with Moderski, Strietz and Nico Andrianto to take eighth in the 200 free relay (1:28.60).
“I was racing for the last time here at my home school, so it was emotional,” said Jess, who will be attending the US Naval Academy. “It’s been a happy four years, and I can’t say I’m disappointed about anything. It was nice to get third today and get a spot with the top three on the podium – that really meant a lot.”
Jess, the 2021 South Jersey Times Swimmer of the Year, also played football at his hometown school, Kingsway, since GCIT doesn’t have a team.
“I know swimmers at the top level usually swim year-round and it was always hard for me to catch up with them after football, but you develop strength playing football and I think that correlates well to what I was able to do in the pool ,” Jess said. “It’s really a thrill that I’ll be at the Naval Academy next year. Considering all the work I’ve put in the last 10-12 years of my life, I can’t wait to swim there.”
In the girls Meet of Champions held later Sunday, West Deptford’s April Aliva took fifth in the 100 breaststroke (1:03.81), and Our Lady of Mercy’s Scarlett McGlinchey took eighth (1:05.26) in the same event.
OLMA took eighth in the 200 medley relay (1:49.81), and Vineland was eighth in the 200 free relay (1:40.18).
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