October 4, 2006 - Walking into Wade McLean Pool on Sept. 27, one would expect to find the bubbly and equally boisterous members of the Marana High School swim team.
Instead one finds a sullen squad, mourning the loss of one of their own. It's the first day back to practice for the Tigers after the death of sophomore Brittany Wilken and shellshock hangs thickly in the air.
While many swim through their grief, others still need consoling. The phrase "we need you to be strong" is almost as common as the tears and the long embraces.
On Sept. 23 the Tigers had their hearts broken with a two-point loss to region rival Canyon Del Oro High School in the Dorado relays. Two days later during practice, their hearts were completely shattered.
It was early in practice when Wilken began complaining of back pain and numbness in her hands. After being rushed to the hospital, the 16-year-old sophomore succumbed to what is believed to be a ruptured aortic valve.
"That was a hard day for a lot of us but I think it made us stronger; it kind of pulled us together even more," said Marana senior Sabrina Welch. "It made us realize how precious life is and how quickly it can be cut off."
More than two hundred family, friends and teammates turned out to Adair Funeral Home on Sept. 29 to pay their respects to the Wilken family.
Wilken didn't swim many events for the Tigers but was very much a part of the team. Quiet by nature, her work ethic was unparalleled to anyone, said head coach Kristin Bourget.
"She had more heart than anyone on the team," said senior Kalob Williams. "She may not have been the fastest but definitely had the biggest heart."
All that effort was beginning to pay off. In a little more than a year swimming for the Tigers, Wilken shaved an astonishing 47 seconds of her time in the 200-meter freestyle.
"She wasn't fast enough to make a Nike roster, wasn't fast enough for a state roster, wasn't fast enough for a regional roster but for her, that was an amazing accomplishment," said assistant coach Kim Dillon about Wilken's shrinking times.
Wilken's 200-freestyle was made quicker through rigorous practice with close friend and training partner Dan Grant. Wilken convinced Grant to join the team as a freshmen and the two have pushed each other ever since. The two were inseparable and after paramedics placed Wilken in the ambulance, Grant ran behind it trying to keep up.
He never got to say goodbye, said Dillon.
Every morning before school, Wilken and close friend Tamara Armstrong would sit at the computers and look up swim times. Whenever the two would pass in the hall, Wilken always had a warm embrace for her friend.
"She was pretty shy unless you got to know her," said Armstrong. "If you got to know her she was really spunky. She was so adorable. She was amazing."
The Tigers honored their fallen teammate on Sept. 28 at Wade McLean in another meet against CDO. Before the meet, Marana swam a Missing Man Formation using kickboards while 16-balloons (the same number as her age) were released. CDO bucked tradition and did not wear any face paint in tribute to Wilken.
In a highly emotional afternoon, the Marana girls team then went out and beat their rivals.