In the pool, everything looks the same to the 23 members of the DeKalb-Sycamore co-op girls swim team.
The girls are undefeated through two dual meets after going undefeated in duals the past two years. They took second at the Sterling Water Warrior Invitational, their traditional spot at the annual early season meet.
But outside the pool, the team has had to deal with an incredible amount of real-world turmoil. Their coach, Leah Eames, was arrested last month on charges she had a sexual relationship with a swimmer.
Assistant coach Erin Shore has since taken over coaching the team on an interim basis.
"They strive for normalcy," Shore said. "They're doing well. They want to be in the pool. They want tough practices. They want to go to meets. They want to compete. That's what they're
focused on right now."
Senior Kayleigh Kozlowski said the Barbs developed a close bond after the circumstances that shocked them at the start of the year.
“We didn’t all know each other,” Kozlowski said. “But after that it got better, and now I think we’re more of a team than we were before.”
Eames was arrested Aug. 26, two days before the Barbs' season started with a dual against Elgin, which ended in a 124-45 Barbs' win. The Barbs then beat Ottawa, 126-42, not to mention the strong showing at Sterling, anchored by Jensen Keck. Her win in the 200-yard backstroke was the only first-place finish that day for the team.
Police allege the relationship between Eames and the student began June 1 and continued until August. Eames, who also is on leave from her job as a math teacher at Sycamore District 427, is charged with criminal sexual assault and aggravated criminal sexual abuse. She is next due in court Wednesday and could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted of the most serious charge.
After Eames’ arrest, District 428 officials met with the swimmers to ask if they still wanted to compete. Their answer was yes, and despite the distraction, they have seemed as competitive as ever.
“They haven’t seemed to skip a beat,” Shore said. “Some girls have already gotten best times, which was earlier than expected. They just focused on what’s next and what’s best for the team.”
Keck said keeping focus has been difficult at times, but being able to rely on each other every day has made it easier.
“I think we are so focused right now,” Keck said. “This actually brought us closer as a team. We’re ready to go prove ourselves. While it did affect us in a way, you’re not going to see it in the meets.”
Shore was an assistant coach on the team last year, and that has provided some much-needed consistency as well.
“Lucky for them I’m not completely new to what they’re used to, so I can be that constant, familiar face,” Shore said. “Hopefully a reassuring face. But [District 428 Athletic Director Tom Kim], the parents, both communities have been wonderfully supportive and doing whatever is best for the girls. And the boys, but obviously the focus right now is girls.”
Shore is on the committee to select a new head coach – a position she said she was offered, but declined. She also said she plans to stay on as an assistant for the boys’ season.
Keck said she’s hoping for a return to the state championship on the 200 medley relay with fellow juniors Kylie Olson, Alexa Miller and Bailey Flemming – and when needed, standout freshman Sarah Hein. Shore said Hein is a well-rounded swimmer who can compete in any stroke.
Shore said when it comes to the team’s goals, everything is the same.
“I still have high expectations. That doesn’t change,” Shore said. “We’re focused on the sectional and getting the right girls in the right events.”