Before Half Hollow Hills’s swimmers could think about winning a state championship, they needed to find a way out of the room.
After months of preparation and training, Hills coach Chris Blumenstetter took his team out of the pool to Can You Escape? — where teams of people must solve puzzles and seek clues to exit an apartment-like room — a week before leaving for the state championship meet.
Blumenstetter wanted to give his team a challenge to pull together as a unit. In order to win the program’s first public school state crown, each member of the team would have to do his part.
The nine state-qualifying swimmers made it out of the escape room in 56 minutes — four minutes before the deadline. A week later, Hills escaped Erie Community College in Buffalo with the coveted public schools team championship.
Junior Alex Park said the three weeks between Hills’ 10th straight Suffolk championship and the state meet were spent focusing on cutting times and studying the results of top teams in the state. He admitted the team was nervous during those weeks and the distraction was nice.
“Being able to go into that room just for an hour instead of going to a practice . . . it was such a great idea because nobody was even thinking about swimming,” Park said. “We were in the room, we were trying to get out of there. We didn’t talk about swimming at all.”
One week later, Park won his second consecutive 200-yard IM state championship and swam on Hills’ winning 200 medley relay and 200 free relay teams at the state meet. Hills’ 200 free relay team of Harrison Tack, Justin Chang, Dylan Chan and Park set a county record in an All-American Consideration time (1:25.94).
“This was the only thing that our team hasn’t really achieved yet,” Tack said. “We were 10-time county champs and this was something where we said, ‘We need to get to it.”’
Even though swimming is largely considered an individual sport, Hills’ swimmers had a team state championship on their mind since the season started. The hard work in the pool put them in the position to capture the title, but the escape room experience helped bring the swimmers together.
“I think it was a great symbolic thing of teamwork because you had to work together to solve a puzzle,” Park said. “You couldn’t do it with just one person.”
And Hills needed swimmers like Harrison and Ethan Tack, Chan and Chang to score enough points to earn that team crown. The 200 medley relay team of Chan, Park, Ethan Tack and Chang posted the top public school time in the first race to set the tone for the championship.
“We had our eyes set on winning states,” Park said. “It wasn’t 100 percent at the beginning but the closer we got to the meet, the more realistic it became and I think that alone is what defines our team. It was us being resilient and preserve through all the obstacles that was thrown at us.”
Whether that challenge was placing first in a race, solving a puzzle or exiting a room.