It was worth the long wait, because Susannah “Zuzu” Bailey claimed the last at-large state qualifying spot in diving when no one at the Chatham-Glenwood Sectional meet bettered her 11-dive score of 384.0 points at the Glenbrook South Sectional.

The Evanston senior, who finished seventh at Glenbrook, will join the 16 sectional champions and the other 31 at-large qualifiers at the Illinois High School Association state finals next Friday in Westmont.

Susannah Bailey qualifies to compete in the IHSA state diving competition this Friday. Credit: Stuart-Rodgers Photography

“I thought it was possible I could make it to state. I though I had maybe one chance in 100,” Bailey said. “I am really wonderfully surprised. I didn’t expect anything like this, not at all.”

She was the lone Evanston Township High School competitor to advance – and perhaps the most unlikely qualifier, considering this is her first year competing in the water after spending all of her athletic career as an accomplished club gymnast.

Her performance came in only the second 11-dive competition of her career. She also placed seventh at the Central Suburban League South division meet, but boosted her score from 330.40 to exactly 384 in just one week.

Bailey’s competition was over by noon Saturday – but the wait was just beginning. She celebrated with her family and her boyfriend, took a nap and tried to catch up on some statistics homework in between visits to the IHSA website to check results.

Finally she got the call certifying her standing from ETHS diving coach Aaron Melnick.

“My back has been bothering me so I ended practice a little early on Friday,” Bailey said. “But I had a good feeling about today and I had a really good meet. I had two dives that I wasn’t crazy about, but I’m pretty proud of how I did.”

So was Melnick. He spent most of the afternoon and evening dialing coaches he knew who competed in other sectionals to find out where Bailey ranked. Thirty-two turned out to be her magic number.

“She didn’t have the best of her meets at the conference,” Melnick said. “But I was very impressed with her diving today. She was a lot better on the dives where there’s a higher degree of difficulty today. And when she left the meet, I didn’t think she was going to make it to state. …

“I said if you make it, great! And if you don’t, you still had a great meet. I told Zuzu and her parents it was just going to be a waiting game. Any time I get a state qualifier I’m ecstatic.” Melnick, who was a diver and gymnast at Niles West High School, added, “Not many of the kids I went to [high] school with made it to state. Going to state is a big deal.”

Bailey’s season wasn’t easy

Bailey conquered plenty of adversity in the short 11-week season. She missed almost four weeks with a sprained ankle and then a partial concussion that wiped out some of her training this fall. And, about a year ago, she was diagnosed with epilepsy, too. So you could say that the Evanston senior was due for some good fortune Saturday.

Bailey began her athletic career as a gymnast at age 3. “I had a childhood dream of flying and gymnastics was the closest thing to that,” she said. She won a state championship on bars as a Level 5 gymnast. She reached Level 8 and qualified for state in every year except for the COVID-19 season at the club level.

For her senior year of high school, she wanted to try something new.

“I was starting to lose my love for gymnastics, partly because some of my previous teammates had left my club team,” Bailey explained. “But I’d always wanted to try some high school sport and it was something I wanted to experience before I went away to college because there’s more of a team aspect to it.

“I’m not done with gymnastics because it’s a huge part of my identity. In fact, I was going to try out for the [ETHS] high school team on Monday. I guess that will have to wait!”

Melnick has had success in the past during his tenure as a Wildkit assistant with divers, both boys and girls, who have thrived as gymnasts. “Sometimes they come in with some baggage, but if they have good body and space awareness, we can work through the details,” he said.

The ETHS Girls Swimming and Diving Team at a team dinner prior to the competition.

“I had to teach Zuzu how to use the board, and that wasn’t easy. She still looks like a gymnast on her approach and yes, that does affect your dives. But I didn’t want to change too much because I want her to be successful in gymnastics, too.

“My goal is just to get them to succeed at the highest level they can,” he said, explaining when Zuzu came back from her ankle injury she face planted on the first day after that at diving practice.

“I had a conversation with her and with her parents and I told them don’t be disappointed if she doesn’t make it now,” Melnick said. “But she focused on what she needed to do, she listened to me, and she got her big dives in.”

Bailey sets the record straight that it wasn’t a “full” concussion, so she was able to return from the protocol a little earlier.

“But I thought I was done,” she admitted, “and that would have been super disappointing because I have super high expectations for myself. I was pretty scared after that accident, but it was something I just had to get through. I‘m not comfortable landing on my head – that’s the opposite of what you want to do in gymnastics – and as a diver you do some crazy dives with some crazy momentum. It can be scary, but I’ve learned to love it.”

“Her front one and one-half pike today was the best she’s done all season. She got seven 7.5s from the judges,” Melnick added. “When you have a dive like that, one you know you can nail, it really gives you a lot of confidence.”

Swim team not heading to state

Bailey wrote a happy ending on a day in which Evanston didn’t come close to earning a state qualifying berth in any of the races at Glenbrook. Despite registering season-best efforts in several events, the Wildkits placed fourth in the team standings with 142 points – behind New Trier with 343, Loyola Academy with 200, and Glenbrook North with 182 – in the 12-team sectional field.

Junior Abby Romisher finished third in the 500-yard freestyle (personal record 5 minutes, 16.91 seconds) and fourth in the 200 freestyle (1:58.59) but couldn’t go faster than the established state qualifying standard in either event. Champs in each event automatically advanced to state.

Wildkit relay team members show off their third place medals.

Monroe Stroth placed sixth in the 100 freestyle in 54.26. and Malia Schoonyoung touched the wall in 5:30.10 in the 500-freestyle, also earning a sixth place. Evanston scored a third in the 400-freestyle relay (3:41.00), a fifth in the 200-freestyle relay (1:40.86), and a sixth in the 200-medley relay (1:51.59).

Head coach Kevin Auger had held out hope for more qualifiers even though Romisher and senior Amanda Nelson (seventh in the 100 backstroke) were the only Wildkits who weren’t fully rested and tapered the previous week at the conference meet.

Nelson showed up sick for practice on Thursday and was less than 100% physically for the final meet of her high school career.

“We didn’t quite reach the brass ring [of state] today, but I’m not at all disappointed as a coach,” said Auger.

“We saw a lot of improvement, a lot of lifetime bests today. Amanda swam tough – on her best times – even though she was sick but she needed lifetime bests to advance today. It’s extremely unfortunate that we didn’t see what she could do shaved and tapered under the best of circumstances.

“I’m not disappointed with the way anybody swam. We have a good core of sophomores and juniors back next year, and I see kids who have future state qualifying times in them.” 

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