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High school swimming: Increased sense of freedom has Cherokee Bluff's Dean Wall aiming high
Cherokee Bluff senior Dean Wall goes through practice Jan. 19, 2023 at the Frances Meadows Aquatics Center in Gainesville. Photo by Bill Murphy

Throughout his many years of competitive swimming, Dean Wall has demonstrated numerous times that he can perform well under a lot of stress.

But even those who thrive under adverse conditions as well as the Cherokee Bluff senior will admit that a more comfortable and freer is actually much more preferable.

To that end, it’s not difficult to detect a sense of calm that has come over him as he enters the last few weeks, and perhaps the most consequential weeks, of his high school career, beginning with the 2023 Hall County Championship meet Saturday at the Frances Meadows Aquatic Center.

There are plenty of reasons why, most notable to Cherokee Bluff head coach Kristi Goodwin is that for the first time since his freshman season, there isn’t some sort of physical obstacle looming over his head.

And that, in turn, has allowed Wall to have more fun with the high school season.

“The hardest things for him is, he’s kind of gotten robbed of two years because he had a COVID year (in 2021), and then he had an injury year (last year),” Goodwin noted. “So, he’s really enjoyed (this season). I remember him talking to me in June and July, and he was like ‘I’m so ready for high school season.’ I hated to remind him that it didn’t start until October, but he was like, ‘I don’t care. I’m already ready.’”

Indeed, Wall admits that feeling completely healthy has made the 2022-23 campaign a lot more enjoyable than a year ago during his junior season, which was significantly limited by a torn elbow ligament.

While he was able to avoid surgery and performed quite well, finishing as Class 1A-3A state runner-up in both the 50- and 100-yard freestyle and being part of state-placing team in the 200 and 400 free relays, he acknowledges a much more confident and comfortable feeling this season.

“Last year, my only opportunity (to complete) was high school state because I was gone literally the whole season (to that point),” Wall said. “This time, I’ve gone to (USA Swimming indoor short course) nationals already, I’ve been to senior state for USA Swimming. It’s a lot different because I couldn’t compete or do everything I wanted.

“I’m definitely a lot stronger than I was last year. I’ve definitely worked a lot on my technique. I’m definitely more powerful than I was just from the weight room alone. I keep (setting personal records) on the weights and everything. I’m still getting stronger.”

That development is likely bad news for his competitors considering what he’s been able to do at less than 100 percent.

After setting a meet record by winning the Hall County 50 free title in a time of 21.23 seconds, Wall bettered that time by swimming 20.7 seconds at the state meet, though he was out touched at the wall by Savannah Arts Academy’s Aaron Seymour by a mere 0.17 seconds.

He also won the county title and finished as state runner-up in the 100 free, the former in a time of 47.16 seconds, just 0.23 seconds off the county record held by North Hall grad and former University of Michigan standout Paul Powers.

So with him fully healthy heading into this weekend’s county meet, Wall has set his sights high.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t even know what the county records were last year,” Wall said. “I knew Paul Powers held them. I love Paul. I used to swim with him years and years ago. (But) this year, I really do feel like I’ve got a good chance (at the 100 free county record).

“Paul (also) holds the 50 free state record, and both of us come from Hall County. People want someone to break, and they want me to do it … so it stays in Hall County. I think I’m close on the 100 free, but I’m a little ways off on the state record. If all goes well, I should be pretty close for the state record (by the state meet). … My main goal is to get first in both my events (at state). I was so close last year. I just got out-touched (at the wall). This year, my main goal is to win, but if I break the record, that’ll be nice.”

If Wall can bring home at least one individual state title, it will make him the first Cherokee Bluff swimmer to do in the school’s brief history.

But despite his laser-like focus on succeeding in the pool, he plans to savor his final weeks of high school swimming.

The county and state meets will be among his final chances to swim alongside his Bears teammates.

And with older brother Henry having already graduated and swimming in college at the University of the Cumberlands in the Kentucky, younger brother Jeff competing as a freshman for the Bears this season and younger sister June not yet in high school, it will also be his final chance to compete with family members as teammates.

He knows it will be different, and a little bit strange when he heads off to swim in college at the University of South Dakota in the fall, though there is still a familial presence awaiting him, which is a reason for his choice of college programs.

“My mother is from South Dakota, and I have so much family out there,” Wall said. “I’ve looked at places closer to home, but if I went to school in, say, North Carolina, I’m still far away versus going to South Dakota, which is still technically far from here, but from family, it’s close.”

That said, he admits the impending end of his high school swimming career is a strange concept for him to contemplate.

“These last four years have been really some of the best four years of my whole career, and really some of the greatest years of my life,” Wall said. But then, I’m still just 18 years old. Really high school swimming has been really great.

“Really, I don’t think it’s sunk in yet that I’m almost done with it because I’ve just been focusing on the next meet and the next meet. I’m pretty sure after state, it’s going to all kick in at once.”

As strange as Wall’s absence next season will be for him, it will be equally so to Goodwin and the rest of her Cherokee Bluff program.

“I don’t know what my life is going to be without him (next season),” Goodwin said. “He’s been with me from Day 1. I don’t know what my swim team looks like without him. I just can’t imagine it. I can’t fathom it. I taught him when he was in eighth grade, so I’ve known him all these years. I’ve known his brother and his family.

“He means so much to the team. He means a lot to the other swimmers. They look up to him, and he’s going to leave a huge hole. … Dean is infectious. He’s got an infectious, good attitude. He demands excellence from himself. I always say (that) there’s winners and there’s champions. Champions aren’t always winners, but sometimes, they are. Winners aren’t always champions. Dean is a champion.”

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