COLUMBUS — Brenau junior Courtney Hayward’s theme song is “Eye of the Tiger.”
But it was the kick of the Golden Tiger that carried Hayward to her third straight 500-yard freestyle title Thursday night at the 2016 NAIA Swimming & Diving National Championships.
The Australian swimmer led wire to wire, finishing with a school-record time of 4 minutes, 56.34 seconds.
Hayward had a comfortable lead of more than 2 seconds with 100 yards to go, but Caroline Lepesant of SCAD Savannah was gaining on her down the final stretch. The SCAD senior finished in 4:56.98.
“She nearly had me at the end, which kind of scared me,” said Hayward, “but I pulled through.”
Hayward, of Townsville, Australia, eclipsed her mark from last year’s NAIA Championships of 4:56.87. Her 20 points helped pace the No. 2-ranked Golden Tigers to fourth place after the first of three full days of competition. SCAD Savannah is first with 205 points, followed by Olivet Nazarene (163.5), Biola (107) and Brenau with 105.
The Golden Tigers are hoping to improve on their third-place finish from last year, which was the best finish in school history.
Hayward said her first thought when she touched the wall was “the amount of pain I was in, then I was excited that I won it three years in a row.”
“Courtney’s tough — she always comes through at the end,” said Brenau first-year coach Nate Rhoads. “I wasn’t worried about them catching her. She always does what it takes to win events and win for her team.”
Fellow Aussie Ella Kleinschmidt of Hervey Bay, Queensland, also made the 500-yard freestyle final, finishing eighth with a time of 5:09.37.
As top seed based on the morning preliminaries, Hayward had the honor of choosing the music to accompany the competitors onto the pool deck.
“It’s always ‘Eye of the Tiger’ every time I’ve been seeded first at a nationals or conference meet,” Hayward said. “It’s something I’ve had ever since I was a little girl — it was way before I was a Tiger.”
After lightning delayed the start of events at the Columbus Aquatic Center for almost an hour, Brenau placed fourth in the 200-yard medley relay with a time of 1:46.92. Freshman Lindsay Dowling of Winston, Georgia, swam leadoff, followed by senior MK Jabbia of Slidell, Louisiana, sophomore Alisha Hodgetts of Perth, Australia, and Kleinschmidt.
“The relay was really fast,” Rhoads said. “I’m thrilled with how the girls swam. They dropped a second over what they went in conference (when Brenau won the Appalachian Swimming Conference championship last month).”
Jabbia, who is also student body president at Brenau, was the only other “A” finalist in an individual event. She placed seventh in the 200 individual medley with a time of 2:12.32. Jabbia had the fastest time in the opening leg, the butterfly, of 27.33 seconds, then faded in the backstroke.
“I’m more of a sprinter,” Jabbia said. “I haven’t trained a lot of 200s this season. I’ve been focusing on my 100 breaststroke, which is tomorrow and I’m really excited about that.”
Sarah Frey, a sophomore from Snellville, was thrilled with her swim in the “B” final, placing fifth with a time of 2:13.32 to finish 13th overall. She had qualified 14th, so moved up a spot, and swam her fastest 200 IM since arriving at Brenau.
“Backstroke, I get a little behind, so breaststroke is where I have to catch up,” Frey said. “It felt really good.”
In the final event, the 800-yard freestyle relay, Brenau placed fifth, with Hodgetts, Kleinschmidt, Dowling and Hayward swimming 7:45.86.
For Kleinschmidt, it was her third event of the night.
“Today was Ella’s big day,” Rhoads said. “She’s definitely taking one for the team. She’s tough.”
Qualification for Friday’s events begins at 9 a.m. The events are the 200 free relay, 400 IM, 100 butterfly, 2100 freestyle, 100 breaststroke, 100 backstroke and 400 medley relay.
“Tomorrow morning, we’re going to fight to get more second swims, and gain ground,” said Rhoads.
Oklahoma Baptist, which won the last three NAIA women’s titles, is now competing in NCAA Division II.