When Justice Wenz and his younger brother, Caleb, came to Lutheran High North two years ago, the school's swim program had been dormant for several years.
Fast forward to 2021, and the program looks to be on its way up. And it will have gotten its restart with the help of one of TAPPS’ most distinguished swimmers over the last two seasons.
During the TAPPS Division III state swim meet on Feb. 8, Justice Wenz capped off his LHN career with one of his best performances. The senior won his second consecutive state championship in the 100-yard breaststroke with a personal-best time of 58.90 seconds and finished second in the 200 individual medley with another personal-best time of 2:03.17 – shaving about 5 seconds off his previous best in the latter event.
“I actually almost got disqualified (after the 100 breaststroke),” he remembered with a laugh. “I tossed my goggles across the pool because I was just so pumped that I finally got this best time and I had just won state. Looking back, I can see how it could be perceived as unsportsmanlike conduct, so I probably shouldn't have thrown my goggles.”
Some other local swimmers also fared well at the TAPPS state competitions.
The St. Thomas boys placed second as a team in Division I, winning state in the 200 medley relay while placing third in both the 200 and 400 freestyle relays.
The Eagles' Dylan Michaels won an individual state title in the boys 500 freestyle and placed second in the 200 freestyle with a school-record time of 1:44.06. Teammate Josh McLean finished third in the 200 IM with a school-record time of 2:00.49.
St. Pius X sophomore Stephanie Birkelbach was the state runner-up in the girls 500 freestyle and finished fourth in the 200 IM. Freshman Ava Ceraudo finished fourth in the girls 100 breaststroke and fifth in the 50 freestyle.
Wenz's medal-winning performances in Division III were a culmination of sorts. He said he and his brother began swimming at Dads Club in Houston in kindergarten.
“At first it was just fun and something that we did – then as I got a little older people kept telling my mom how good I was at this swimming thing,” he said. “That’s where I got really competitive and started to love training. It was all the fun of summer league combined with harder work and faster swims – all the best things in swimming.”
But amidst it all, he said he never lost his passion for doing things in the way he believes is best.
“It’s an everyday thing, a daily mindset at every practice – have fun, lift others, and they eventually lift you,” he said. “It is hard, but make it fun.”
Little did Wenz know, that mantra would be especially relevant during a turbulent final high school season.
Diving into adversity
Like many others in the Houston region and the state, LHN and Wenz’s summer training was thrown into upheaval last March when the COVID-19 pandemic first reached the region. For starters, Wenz said he was unable to even climb into a pool for the first two months as the region figured out protocols for dealing with the coronavirus.
That was quite the change for someone who previously had near-daily 5 a.m. wakeup calls for personal workouts.
“My whole day starts with swimming, so I just felt weird the whole time. I had to run, and my knees were hurting all the time because I wasn’t used to that,” he said. “Just finding different outlets to get that workout in was tough – whether it was pushups at home or trying to find little ways to keep up my training.”
But through all those home – and eventually socially-distanced – workouts, he knew what he had to do to keep spirits up and make a run at defending his state title.
“Make up jokes, sing a song, whatever you have to do to enjoy the daily hard work in the pool,” Wenz said.
It appears that the spirit was not lost on Wenz or his teammates, spurring them to a solid finish at the state meet. Younger brother Caleb Wenz, a junior, finished second in the 100 butterfly and sixth in the 50 freestyle, while LHN finished 13th among 28 participating teams in the meet despite sending just six total swimmers.
It was the culmination of a whirlwind season for many around the state, especially as Lions first-year head coach Brian Chambers got his feet wet at the school.
"It was such a privilege to coach Justice. He is an athlete that is always wanting to continue to better himself in and out of the pool," Chambers said. "When you see that quality mixed with the athletic talent he has, you know this young man is going places.
"Justice is not only an amazing swimmer, but an incredible young man. Great Athletes are great not just for what they bring at competition, but what they contribute to the world around them."
Leaving his mark
It’s no secret that Wenz was a force to be reckoned with in the pool, given his recent dominance. He said he has had conversations with multiple Division III colleges about swimming for them, and one day hopes to represent the United States in the Olympic Games.
“(The other swimmers) figured out that I was the top guy (with a 59-second seeding time), and all asked if I was the '59 guy,' ” he said with a laugh. “After we finished, they were all so excited for me, saying, ‘Now you're the 58 guy.' ”
But his favorite memory at LHN, Wenz said, has been the journey and those he crossed paths with to help him grow beyond swimming. He is hoping to get a Texas real estate license in the coming years as he tries to make an impact no matter where he is, the way he feels he’s been able to do at LHN.
“The best part has been being able to go to a school where I can have such a loud voice. I got to restart the swim team and put LHN on the map,” he said. “I love the size of our school, and being the varsity swim captain has helped me sort of be a leader. I would love to see LHN swim grow and be a highlight for the school.”