Jerry McBride/Durango Herald
Call him “Coco.”
When Thai foreign exchange student Thananpot Rujinunpanich joined the Durango High School boys swim team this season he swam like a fish out of water – in the water.
The farthest he could swim was 50 yards with half-hour breaks in between swims; his first 100-yard freestyle time was more than 2 minutes.
All season, Rujinunpanich hadn’t won a heat, but Friday at Durango’s lone home meet of the season at the Fort Lewis College pool – its final meet before the Western Slope District Tournament – the boy they call Coco swam more like a dolphin and won two.
“I’m really proud of Coco,” teammate Carl Sallee said. “He’s been busting his butt all season. It’s cool to see someone working that hard.”
Sallee said Rujinunpanich has put in extra practices and done extra training since the beginning of the season. When he doesn’t have practice, Rujinunpanich said he’ll sometimes head to the Durango Community Recreation Center just to get in the water.
All the work is paying off. In addition to winning his heat in both the 50 and the 100 free, he set personal records with times of 31.22 seconds and 1 minute, 4.61 seconds, respectively. His seeding time in the 100 was 1:26.12. He took fifth overall in each event.
Rujinunpanich was all smiles.
“It was so good because it’s my new record,” Rujinunpanich said. “I don’t know what to do, and I got first. I try so hard, and everything is all right right now.
“I love swimming.”
Each meet Rujinunpanich takes seconds, or more, off of his times, interim DHS swim coach Matt Seagrave said. Next week at districts, Seagrave said he’d like to see Rujinunpanich even push within a few seconds of the 53.5-second state qualifying time.
With some more work and a good week in practice, Seagrave thinks Rujinunpanich can break the 1-minute mark.
“He just keeps dropping ridiculous times every time he swims,” Seagrave said.
Although point totals weren’t available Friday night, Seagrave said he thought the rest of the home meet went well, especially with strong showings by Jesse Rubenstein and Sallee.
The two combined to make up two legs of the 200 medley relay, along with Josh Miller and Austin Bullock, which was the most exciting race of the dual meet against District 51’s Grand Junction swim team.
Rubenstein started off the first leg in the backstroke, trailing by a few yards at the end of swim.
Miller took over in the second-leg breaststroke and started making up the distance before overcoming the Grand Junction swimmer on the turn. He lengthened the gap before letting Sallee, in the butterfly, and Bullock, in the free, maintain the lead for the win with a time of 1:46.56.
Grand Junction’s top team was disqualified, but another Grand Junction team took second at 1:58.95, and a Demons’ team made up of Rujinunpanich, Austin Miller, Peter Bussian and Jackson Paine took third at 2:09.56.
“I feel pretty good about that,” Josh Miller said about grabbing the lead for his team.
He didn’t feel as good about the rest of the meet.
In the 200 individual medley, Josh Miller posted a state-qualifying time and would’ve grabbed second place but was disqualified for turning over too much in his transition.
“It happens,” Seagrave said.
Austin Miller was just outside the 2:15.50 qualifying mark at 2:15.91 for second place, and Grand Junction’s Carlos Matthews took first at 2:09.98.
Then in the 100 breast, Josh Miller posted a 1:10.02 – good for second place behind Bullock’s first-place 1:09.76 but still about a second off the state-qualifying time, which he’s been after all season after making it last year as a freshman.
“I was hoping to make it this year and not have to chase it all season,” Miller said. “But I’ve been chasing it all season.”
Still, both Josh Miller and his coach said they’re confident he can qualify in both the 100 IM and 100 breast at next weekend’s district meet at Colorado Mesa University.
Sallee was pleased with where he is after getting back from Africa a few weeks ago and working to get back in swimming shape.
Shape didn’t seem to be a problem Friday.
Sallee won the 200 freestyle by about half a pool length with a mark of 2:01.01 and also won the 100 fly with a time of 56.42, just one second off of his 55.51 school record. He’s hoping to drop the time to about 51 seconds by the state meet in two weeks.
A senior, Sallee also was one of the nine DHS seniors recognized Friday.
“It was just fun being here with all my friends my last meet in Durango,” Sallee said.
Rubenstein, too, racked up a dominating victory.
In the 100 free, Rubenstein won by a full pool length with a time of 51.21, more than 8 seconds faster than Grand Junction’s Noah Bradshaw and good enough for a Durango best this year. Bussian was sixth just behind Rujinunpanich at 1:05.77.
Rubenstein also took second in the 100 back with a time of 59.58 behind Grand Junction’s Tyler Fair’s 57.32. Paine was fifth with a time of 1:15.06.
In other events:
Bullock took third in the 500 free with a time of 5:30.69 behind a top time of 5:19.04 by Grand Junction’s Austin Acree and a second-place time of 5:29.48 by Grand Junction’s Logan Young.
The 200 free relay team of Paine, Bussian, Rujinunpanich and Austin Miller took second with a time of 1:50.76 behind a top Grand Junction time of 1:43.60.
The 400 free relay of Rubenstein, Bullock, Sallee and Austin Miller finished runner-up with a time of 3:37.89 behind a top time of 3:33.75 by Grand Junction.
After years without a diving program, DHS swim fans also got to see some diving Friday.
First-year divers Austin Miller and Bussian got to show off what they’ve learned in front of a home crowd. Although diving coach Mark Fleming said he could tell the boys were a little bit timid this time around, he said it was “super rewarding” to have them dive in front of family and friends.
“I thought they did great,” Fleming said.
Austin Miller took third, and Bussian, who had taken a month off before Friday’s competition, finished fourth behind Grand Junction’s Nick Stubler and CJ Gonzales.
Austin Miller even got to show off one of his “new tricks” – a back 1½ somersault.
Although Austin Miller said the attempt, in which he landed on his back, was “probably the worst one I’ve done since I’ve learned it,” competing in front of the fans “was fun, a lot of fun.”
“I think we’re all doing way more than we ever thought we could,” Austin Miller said.