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Touch of Success

When she banged her head against the wall in a heat of the 100 backstroke, Luci Plaxton dissolved in tears, convinced she’d blown her chance to reach the national finals.

That evening, Plaxton made a 180-degree turn emotionally.

The sophomore from Canada bounced back to place second at the NCAA Division II meet in Buffalo, N.Y., equaling the best finish ever by an IUP woman at nationals. Plaxton touched the wall—with her hand this time—in a school-record 57.61 seconds, just behind North Dakota’s Jenny Bachmeier (57.41), to earn All-America honors.

Dave Caldwell and Luci Plaxton

Dave Caldwell and Luci Plaxton

“After her morning swim, he was in tears because she didn’t think she’d made it to the finals,” said head coach Dave Caldwell. “She had a terrible finish and ended up fourth, but her heat was so fast that she qualified. Once we got past the tears, we worked on preparing to touch with the hand, not the head.”

Plaxton responded with the race of her life. She matched the second-place performances of former IUP All-Americans Rachel Slade (200 butterfly, 1998) and Petra Adamkova (50 freestyle, 1999 and 2000), neither of whom was as much a darkhorse as Plaxton. After all, she spent much of the season battling a virus that sapped her strength and her confidence.

“I had already qualified for nationals before I got sick,” said Plaxton, who also finished sixth in both the 50 and 100 freestyle at Buffalo to boost her career All-America total to five. “But when I was out of the water for a month after Christmas, I was really worried I wasn’t going to be back in shape in time for nationals. So I didn’t really have a lot of expectations going in.”

Plaxton swam so powerfully in the NCAA finals that, despite an atrocious turn, she shattered her own school record.

Especially in the backstroke. Plaxton had focused on freestyle events since arriving at IUP, Caldwell having recruited her after spotting her times on a swimming website. But under the tutelage of Bethany Lindberg, Plaxton emerged as a force in the 100 back.

“One of our new assistant coaches this year was an All-America backstroker at Texas, and she worked a lot with Luci on technique,” Caldwell said. “That’s what really helped Luci.”

She made dramatic improvement in the event, slicing nearly two seconds off her time over the course of the season. Plaxton swam so powerfully in the NCAA finals that, despite an atrocious turn, she shattered her own school record.

“Luci just took off and had a fantastic swim,” said Caldwell. “She was first into the wall going into the last turn. At that point, the coaching staff and the coaches from our conference were going crazy. If she had made the perfect turn, she would’ve been fine, but she almost missed the wall, she was so excited. She swam great all the way to the end and was out-touched by two tenths of a second, a snap of the fingers. She just couldn’t believe she had finished second.”

The tears of hours before were forgotten.

“I was ecstatic,” said Plaxton, a communications major from Toronto. “I was happy just to make it to the finals, because I had a really rough year. So I was very pleased to finish second. Sure would’ve been nice to come in first, though.”

That’s a goal Caldwell figures his Canadian All-American will achieve eventually.

“She’s most definitely a potential national champion,” he said, “anywhere from the 100 free to the 100 back to the 200 free to the 200 back. In any of those four events she’s a threat.”

Plaxton, too, is convinced she’ll one day touch the wall first. Especially if she remembers not to use her head.