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Newcomer Justin Ress of Mission Viejo Nadadores claims 100 backstroke at U.S. swimming nationals

IRVINE — Orange County swimming raced to its first title at the Phillips 66 National Championships courtesy of a new world champion training with the Mission Viejo Nadadores.

Justin Ress, a 24-year-old who has joined the Nadadores’ new professional group Coach Jeff Julian, used his 6-foot-5 frame to win a close men’s 100-meter backstroke final on Friday night to help highlight Day 4 at the Woollett Aquatics Center.

Despite recently overcoming a bout of COVID-19, Ress out-touched Adam Chaney of Ohio’s Mason Manta Rays by 13 one-hundredths of a second and Jack Aikins of Swam Atlanta by two-tenths to win in 53.55 seconds.

“I knew this meet was going to be tough and I was just going to have to race through it,” said Ress, a former All-American at North Carolina State who finished almost a second off his best time.

At the FINA World Championships in Hungary in June, the Laguna Niguel resident claimed the 50-meter backstroke and teamed with U.S. star Caeleb Dressel, college roommate Ryan Held and Brooks Curry for the gold medal in the 400 freestyle relay.

“(Winning gold at Worlds) just doesn’t happen to a large majority of the world,” Ress reflected, “and knowing that I got to do it with guys like Ryan and Caeleb, who I’ve looked to for a while. … (was) just an incredible feeling. There’s nothing like it.”

Friday’s finals didn’t feature the world’s greatest female swimmer, but her presence was felt courtesy of a teenager she inspired.

Erin Gemmell, a 17-year-old who once dressed up for Halloween as her hero Katie Ledecky, followed that inspiration to her first national title.

Gemmell capitalized on the absence of the American record holder in the women’s 400 freestyle to win the event in 4:06.17.

Gemmell grew up with her father Bruce coaching Ledecky, 25, at Nation’s Capital Swim Club in Virginia. She also attends the same Maryland high school – Stone Ridge – that Ledecky helped put on the swimming map.

Gemmell shed about 2½ seconds off of her personal best to win the 400 by more than two seconds and move to 13th fastest in the world this year.

She said Ledecky’s work ethic and humility serve as motivation.

“She is always putting in all the work at practice,” Gemmell said of the seven-time Olympic gold medalist, who won three U.S. titles earlier this week. “(For me) it’s just seeing, ‘Oh, this is what it looks like when someone is really putting the work in and I need to put in that sort of work if I want to be that speed.”

“Not only is she a really super-fast swimmer,” Gemmell added, “I also really admire her just as a person. … She’s always just so humble and gracious.”

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