When Soldotna senior Joshua Gemmell touched the wall after the 50-yard freestyle to complete the second best boys performance in the 21 years of the Soldotna Pentathlon this year, his reaction did not fit the accomplishment.
He fixed his stare on the ceiling, the pained look on his face matching that of someone learning it was time for a root canal. At the awards ceremony, he would slough up to get his trophy towel much as a prisoner would approach the gallows.
"I just didn't swim well," he told a reporter after his performance. "I'm sorry. I don't have anything to say."
Of course, "well" here is a relative term. On any other year, Gemmell's swims earn him a blowout victory. But not this year. Not when he's swimming alongside good friend and fellow Soldotna senior Lucas Petersen.
Petersen beat Gemmell by almost three seconds at the meet, breaking four of the five meet records to take his fourth straight Pentathlon. Naturally, Gemmell broke the one meet record that Petersen did not break.
"I know Joshua was 100 percent sure he was going to win the Pentathlon this year, and Joshua did a great job," Soldotna coach Sohail Marey said. "Lucas just stepped up to another height and won the Pentathlon again.
"I don't think they could do this well by themselves. It's a great combination."
The competition between the two has resulted in the pair rising heads above the rest of the peninsula's swimmers. Gemmell and Petersen usually win their races by seconds, not tenths or hundredths of a second, and one of them has the top peninsula time in every swimming event this year.
"If I didn't have Lucas pushing me, I wouldn't even be at Soldotna," said Gemmell, whose parents live in Kenai. "I've looked up to him ever since I came here in seventh grade."
While the success and times the two enjoy these days are similar, the success and times couldn't have been more different before seventh grade.
Petersen moved to the area when he was 9 years old with his parents, Trudy and Dave Petersen. He started swimming with the Soldotna Silver Salmon Swim Club.
"He came with a great general feel for the water," said Marey, who has coached the Silver Salmon for 13 years. "He was one of the easiest people to coach.
"Whatever you taught him to do, he could just do it. It will take some kids a year or two to get some things down, but he could just do it."
Marey and Trudy also noticed a precocious maturity in Petersen that fit swimming like a glove.
"I think what I saw in him was a very disciplined child," said Trudy, who as a high school teacher knows a few things about normal self-discipline levels of children. "He was always a very disciplined child.
"Here was a sport where that skill of his came into play."
Petersen quickly started putting up some of the state's best times in his age group.
Things weren't going nearly as smooth in Gemmell's swimming career.
"He was a very hyperactive kid, always splashing around the pool," said David Gemmell, Joshua's father. "Thinking about competitive swimming was the last thing on his mind."
In seventh grade, the pool at Kenai was closed down for repairs so Gemmell went over to swim in Soldotna. He didn't make a good first impression.
"When he came to me, after he swam for a day, I have to be honest, I wasn't very impressed," Marey said. "I thought, 'What have I gotten myself into?'
"He was one of those kids growing really fast, and when kids grow fast, they lose coordination."
But at that time, a number of circumstances were occurring that would propel Gemmell in the pool. One of the big factors was meeting Petersen.
"If it wasn't for Lucas being very level-headed and very organized, Joshua may not have reached this level at all," David said.
With his grandmother taking him from Kenai Middle School to Soldotna to swim, and Carletta, Joshua's mom, and David picking him up from the pool, Gemmell began vast improvement.
"Most of the improvement he did on his own," Marey said. "He's very ambitious.
"Lucas used to be No. 1 in every event. Now, the two can split victories at anytime. It's the best thing that could have happened."
The two also became good friends. As a freshman and sophomore, Gemmell would stay over at Petersen's house two to three times a month before meets.
"It's a pretty competitive situation for both of us, but it makes us both faster," Petersen said. "It's hard to set some of these goals and go for them by yourself.
"We still are good friends. We swim different events, so that helps."
As a sophomore, Petersen won the 100 butterfly and the 200 individual medley at state, and he repeated in the 100 butterfly last year.
Meanwhile, Gemmell took both the state 100 freestyle and 100 breaststroke as a junior.
The times the two have put up are good enough that they are drawing interest from Division I swimming schools.
At the USA Swimming Junior Championships West meet in Anchorage in March, Gemmell finished third in the 100 breaststroke. There were two other junior championships held at the same time, but if those two are taken into account, Gemmell would have had top 16 times in his age group in both the 100 and 200 breaststroke.
Also at the meet, which included over 700 of the top under-19 swimmers in the West, Petersen finished 15th in the 100 butterfly.
For both, it was a reward for swimming nearly year-round.
"Having to be at the pool two hours or more every day gets old," Gemmell said. "But getting to state meets and beating guys who had beat you, that feels good."
Both Petersen and Gemmell find time for much more than swimming. Petersen has a 4.0 grade point average in the classroom and is part of the National Honors Society. He has played saxophone in both the symphonic and jazz bands, and has been to state honor choir every year.
Meanwhile, Gemmell checks in with a grade point average of 3.68.
Petersen said it's actually easier for him to stay busy than it is to have a lot of free time.
"If I don't go swimming on a day, I never use the time to get a lot done, anyway," he said. "I'll usually just end up wasting it."
The one break the two take from swimming is during the spring soccer season. Due to their strong play on the pitch, they have already been elected co-captains for the upcoming season.
"I just love playing soccer," Petersen said. "It's good to get away from swimming a little bit and do something different a couple months out of the year."
But after soccer, it will be right back to the pool to start chasing each other, and times that will mean college scholarships, again.
"Both of them are a great examples of what hard work and dedication can do for a swimmer," Marey said.
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