Sarah Hardy kicked off the pool wall and sprinted toward the finish line.
The Bishop George Ahr High School senior was butterflying at warp speed, trying to pass the six swimmers ahead of her in the 100-meter fly championship at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions.
She passed the first five swimmers and caught up to the leader, Erin Cavanagh of the Bishop Eustace Preparatory School. Hardy flapped past Cavanagh and touched the wall ahead of her.
The final clock read Hardy 55.46, Cavanagh 55.50. A difference of 0.04 seconds.
With that furious final lap, Hardy clinched the third state title of her memorable four-year career at the Edison school.
Hardy had also won this title in a very different event. As a freshman and sophomore, she won state championships in the 200-meter individual medley, a compilation of the four main swimming strokes.
After her scintillating race on March 3 at the Gloucester County Institute of Technology in Sewell, Hardy looked onto the deck at her coach, Bishop Ahr’s Amanda Cleveland-Miller.
She was crying.
“To have a state championship in the last meet of her career, it was perfect,” Cleveland-Miller said. “It was a blessing and an honor to have her.”
Over the past four years, Cleveland-Miller and Hardy have developed a close relationship.
When Hardy arrived at Bishop Ahr in 2015, Cleveland-Miller knew who she was. The coach had followed Hardy’s exploits at the Metuchen YMCA.
But despite her accomplishments, Hardy acted like a girl who was new to the sport and just trying to make the lineup.
Cleveland-Miller only makes club swimmers attend school practices once a week. In Hardy’s freshman season, the coach told her about this policy.
Hardy shrugged and squeaked out her response.
“I like coming, I’ll be here,” she said.
“That’s the way she’s always been,” Cleveland-Miller said.
Hardy became the leader of Bishop Ahr’s program because she led by example. In addition to attending every practice, she was willing to swim any event involving any stroke. In her four years at Bishop Ahr, Hardy swam the fly, the breaststroke, the backstroke and the IM.
Cleveland-Miller asked her a recurring question throughout her career.
“What would you like to swim today, Sarah?” the coach would ask.
Hardy always gave the same response.
“Wherever you need me, coach,” she would say.
Hardy’s career was not perfect, though. She failed to win the state title in the 200-meter IM during her last two high school seasons. She also never won a state title in the breast or backstroke.
But after returning to the 100-meter fly this winter, Hardy was determined to add another medal to her collection. She worked every day in practice on the stroke.
By the Meet of Champions, Hardy was swimming the second lap faster than the first. So in falling behind on March 3, she had every other swimmer exactly where she wanted them.
“She put herself in a good position and really went for it,” Cleveland-Miller said.
The three-time state champion will swim at the collegiate level, too. Hardy is committed to Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.
Lehigh is only about an hour west of Metuchen. Cleveland-Miller is planning on making the trip next winter.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Cleveland-Miller said. “Lehigh has a very talented young lady heading its way.”