Helena High senior Alex Ackerlund has come a long way.
At the start, he was a fourth grader who enjoyed practices with the Helena Lions Swim Team, but was adamant about not actually competing.
Since then, he has captured four Montana short/long course titles with HLST, and earned four varsity letters for Helena High. Utilizing a combination of hard work, a long, effortless stroke and countless hours playing water polo -- along with the advice of an assistant coach -- Ackerlund capped off his prep career last month with three Top-nine showings at the 2017 State Meet, highlighted by a pair of All-State citations.
Now, Ackerlund has been named the Independent Record’s Swimmer of the Year.
“I am honored to be chosen as swimmer of the year. My coach, Kyle Kallin, has been the most influential person in my swimming career,” said Ackerlund. “Without him, I wouldn’t have made it nearly as far as I have.
“Coach Kallin’s continued support has given me the drive I needed to compete at the level I’m at.”
His mother, Julie Ackerlund, said that her son is known for his “lanky, gentle-looking stroke” when he swims.
“Alex’s built-in flippers -- size 12 ½ shoes -- and 6-foot-3 frame allows him to race the length of the pool and still look like he’s having a casual swim,” she said. “But as a young swimmer, (even though) he enjoyed practices with friends, it took some arm twisting to get him to agree to his first swim meet.
“He didn’t look forward to racing in a pool with super cold water and then having to swim fast and get tired.”
But by his freshman year, he was getting used to competing. And at the 2014 State Meet, he beat his older sister, Erika, a senior, in the 200 freestyle by one-thousandth of a second.
Last year, at the State Meet, Ackerlund swam a then-PR of 1:57.27 in the 200, which was good enough for an eighth-place finish in the prelims.
Ackerlund opened the latest prep season at the eight-team Butte Invitational in December with a victory in the 100 free in 54.23 seconds, while placing runner-up in the 200, at 1:56.86. In Great Falls, he posted a second in the 100 and came in third in the 200. Next, at the six-team meet in Billings, Ackerlund finished runner-up in both events.
Then came the State Meet in Great Falls.
In the 200 free, he blazed to a 1:51.52, lowering his PR by three seconds and capturing the fourth-place medal. Next, Ackerlund teamed up with fellow Bengals Jacob Malaski, Parker Keller and Jesse Mace for another fourth-place medal, in the 200 medley relay.
He closed out his prep career with a ninth-place finish in the 500 free, with a time of 5:17.22 -- 38 seconds faster than the last time he swam in the event as a freshman.
His sister, the reining NCAA national triathlon champion and the IR’s 2016 Female Athlete of the Year, noted how things really began to jell for Alex.
“Whenever I’m home on break, Alex always spent a lot of hours at the pool for practice,” said Erika, a junior on the University of Montana’s triathlon team. “With the lack of pool space in Helena, I know he’s done some back-to-back practices to be a part of both the high school and club teams.
“Being in the water for that long, I’m sure he built up a great base to race fast off of. And he often would go back to the pool later in the day to play water polo with friends. That’s just a lot of time in a pool all in one day, so it’s good to see it all translating into some PRs for him.”
And now Alex has matched big sis with IR’s Swimmer of the Year.