FARMINGTON HILLS – Maybe it was fate that brought Katie Minnich and Farmington Hills Mercy swim coach Mike Venos together this season.
Unbeknownst to Minnich, Venos had known Minnich a decade before she became one of the state’s top swimmers.
Minnich, a junior, is an emerging swimming superstar in a state that has produced such nationally renowned athletes as Olympian Allison Schmidt of Canton and, more recently, Waterford’s Maddie Wright, who now competes for the University of Southern California and was a semifinalist at the 2016 Olympic trials.
Minnich’s main event is the 100-yard backstroke. Her best time is 54.67. She placed first in that event at the Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals her freshman and sophomore seasons. In addition, she was a part of Mercy’s 200 medley relay teams that also took first place the last two years. Last season the relay team set an LP Division 1 Finals record with a time of 1:44.44.
Enter Venos. The longtime successful swim coach at Birmingham Brother Rice (his Warriors have won the last three LP Division 1 titles) took over the Mercy program this season for Shannon Dunworth and has the Marlins in position for a third MHSAA team title in the past six seasons. Mercy, under Dunworth, won LP Division 1 titles in 2011 and 2013 and was runner-up in 2012 and 2014.
This season’s Division 1 Finals will be held Friday and Saturday at Oakland University.
Minnich, encouraged by her mother, Toni Minnich, began swimming at age 3. A year later, Venos met Minnich through a mutual acquaintance.
“Jackie Smith was her babysitter,” Venos said. “Jackie graduated from Mercy (2002) and I knew her through the Village Athletic Club, where she swam.
“And my kids, my youngest two, swam with (Minnich). I have a son who’s a sophomore at Brother Rice and another who’s in the eighth grade at (Birmingham) St. Hugo.
“Swimming is a small community. Everybody smells like chlorine. But it’s a good community.”
Minnich credits her parents for opening the doors for her in the world of athletics. Her father, John Minnich, is a PGA professional and former head club professional at a few country clubs in the area including Indianwood Golf and Country Club in Lake Orion. He’s the current boys golf coach at Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood.
“My parents wanted me to be involved, be a part of a team and learn what that means,” Minnich said. “My mom wanted me to take (swimming) lessons. I was 3 then. She thought it would be a life skill.”
At this same time, Minnich also began playing soccer. She had fun playing both and made friends playing each. Two years later she began swimming competitively with the Birmingham Blue Dolphins. At age 7 she began competing year round.
“I’ve always been focused,” she said. “Skipping swim practice was never an option. I set my goals, for all different things. I set goals for times, (making) cuts for different U.S. meets.
“It’s hard to set goals because when you reach one, you set another. It’s hard to stay in one place.”
That’s the idea. Minnich is continually trying to get better. It’s not something she consciously thinks about. In the pool it’s all about repetition and concentration. Get distracted and the race could be lost. Minnich races against herself, not the swimmer next to her.
“I like to use the phrase, swim in your own lane,” Venos said. “She swims in her own lane. You don’t let anything affect you. You don’t think about the person next to you. The minute you get into trouble is when you’re trying to control those things you can’t control. If you’re in a place where you are in a process, doing the things you need to do, you’re in a good place.”
Venos said swimming is an odd sport. One reason: A swim team practices 16 weeks for one event – the MHSAA Finals. In Michigan there are no Districts or Regionals for which to qualify. Sure, there are invitationals and league meets, but no meets where a qualifying time is required. Venos likes it that way. He said some states use Regionals, much like in track & field, to qualify for the Finals.
Venos also noted the oddity when describing the individual aspect of the sport in relation to that of the team.
“Swimming is unique in that way,” he said. “It’s a stupid sport. You’re out there by yourself but you would not be as successful without being with your team.”
Minnich understands this and said she’s more proud of her relay team’s title in the 200 medley than she is of her backstroke titles. It gets back to why she swims. She has fun.
“What makes a great swimmer is they want to be great,” she said. “And (to reach that level) you have to allow others to help you to reach your goals. That’s why it’s special at Mercy. We’re like sisters.”
Nationally, Minnich, 16, has competed in the U.S. Junior Nationals in Minnesota and this past August she placed seventh in the backstroke at the 18-and-under YMCA Nationals in Greensboro, N.C.
This week all of her concentration is on the MHSAA meet and, hopefully, improving her times.
“I just want to swim as fast as I can,” she said. “You always want to compete against the best. You always want to see what your times are. We’re all just focused on winning.”
Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTO: Farmington Hills Mercy's Katie Minnich launches into the backstroke during Friday's Detroit Catholic League championship meet. (Photo courtesy of the Farmington Hills Mercy girls swimming & diving program.)
WEST BLOOMFIELD — When she started high school swimming last fall, West Bloomfield sophomore Elizabeth Eichbrecht didn’t know what expectations to have, given she knew full well the high level of competition there was throughout the state.
Well, after two seasons, it’s safe to say Eichbrecht has blown any expectations she had out of the water, pun intended.
At the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals on Nov. 17-18 at Eastern Michigan University, Eichbrecht won her third and fourth individual championships.
She won the 200-yard freestyle in a time of 1:48.08, more than three seconds ahead of the next finisher. The winning time qualified for All-America recognition and bested her first-place time from the 2022 Finals by 0.34 seconds.
Later on, Eichbrecht won the 500 freestyle in a time of 4:47.66, more than 11 seconds ahead of the rest of the field. Her All-American time in that event was more than five seconds better than her winning time in 2022.
Two years, four Finals titles. Not too shabby.
“Yes it’s surprising, because there are so many fast girls and we are all very competitive,” Eichbrecht said.
Eichbrecht already holds six school records – in all four freestyle events, the 200 individual medley and 100 butterfly.
She also owns Oakland Activities Association records in the 200 and 500 freestyles and the 100 butterfly.
“I like the distance events more, mainly because I don’t have to all-out sprint,” Eichbrecht said.
West Bloomfield head coach Ronson Webster said the big reason why Eichbrecht was even better this year as a sophomore after making such an impact as a freshman wasn’t necessarily because she was bigger and stronger, although those were contributing factors.
Mainly, her success this year was the validation that she belonged after such a great freshman season.
“She gained more confidence this year going into her races,” he said. “She focused on racing her race and not who was next to her. Meeting the time we worked for was the goal. Winning is a bonus.”
While Eichbrecht excels at so many events, her specialty has been the 200 and 500 freestyles, which is stating the obvious given the Finals titles she has won in those events.
“Her training is very specific as it is for every swimmer on our team,” Webster said. “Everyone is trained differently. Her technique is very important and specific to her event and body size. Since she is shorter, she can’t swim the same as a tall person. Having the right technique designed for the swimmer and the correct race plan goes a long way.”
Eichbrecht next will focus on her club season for Supernova Swim Team based out of Farmington Hills, and she already is looking forward to competing at the Winter Junior Nationals in Columbus from Dec. 6-9.
By the time her career is over, it’s safe to say Eichbrecht might be the best all-time from a West Bloomfield school that’s not known as much for swimming as other Oakland County powers such as Farmington Hills Mercy or the Birmingham schools. But Eichbrecht is relishing putting her school on the swimming map with all her success so far.
“I love swimming at WB,” she said. “My teammates are amazing, and they work super hard. I’m super proud of all the work they put in this season, and I can’t wait for next season.”
Keith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties
PHOTOS (Top) West Bloomfield’s Elizabeth Eichbrecht swims the winning 200-yard freestyle Nov. 18 at Eastern Michigan University. (Middle) Eichbrecht talks with runner-up Yan Yee Adler from Ann Arbor Pioneer after also winning the 500 freestyle. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)