Jenna Marsh has not met an obstacle — or a state record — that she can’t knock down.
The remarkable Billings Central junior will try to make it a perfect 6 for 6 in setting state records in the state swim meet Friday and Saturday in Hardin.
Marsh has competed in four individual events at the state meet the past two years. She’s won all four — and clocked a state-record time in all four.
“I’d love to do that again … I want to try to beat the times I had last year,” said Marsh. “I don’t really have specific times in mind that I want to swim. I just want to beat last year’s records. I always want to swim faster than I did the last time at state.”
Marsh will be in the same two individual events she swam last year — the 50-yard freestyle and the 100 butterfly. She clocked a 23.79 in the 50 free last year, edging her own state-record time of 23.83 which she swam as a freshman.
She also set the record in the 100 butterfly last year at 56.19. As a freshman, she set the record in the 100 freestyle (51.45).
And she’s done all this while battling what she describes as a “misaligned spine” which causes problems with her rib cage, shoulders, collarbones, and — most surprisingly — prevents her lungs from fully expanding and makes breathing difficult during races.
“It’s just something I’ve always had to deal with, but it gets pretty frustrating sometimes,” said Marsh, who goes to physical therapy once a week for treatment. “I’ve seen so many doctors … they don’t even really have a name for what I have, and none of them really know why it’s like that.
“Coach Brenden (Smith) calls it my pretzel chest. I guess that’s about the only name I have for it.”
Marsh said she’s been to “a whole bunch of doctors, chiropractors, massage therapists and naturopathic doctors,” and she’s even tried blood platelet replacement injections — all to no avail.
“I just kind of deal with it,” she said. “I’ve gotten pretty good with pain tolerance. The hardest part is when I have trouble breathing. There’s been a couple of times when we’ve gone really hard with some longer distances in practice and I had to be dragged out of the pool because I couldn’t breathe enough to get out.
“It’s frustrating to think about what my times might be if I didn’t have to deal with that.”
Marsh’s success in the pool has not been limited to Montana competition. In early December, she competed in the USA Swimming Junior Nationals in Knoxville, Tenn., and finished seventh in the 18U 100 butterfly. She swam a state-record 54.05 in the prelims and a 54.25 in the finals, which was also faster than the previous Montana record.
“Jenna is just an awesome talent,” said Smith, who’s Marsh’s coach at Billings Central and the Billings Aquatic Club team. “She works very hard, she does a lot of work outside the pool, and she never whines about practice work.
“She has a great ability to make changes in her stroke, which is something that most kids don’t have. If we give her something to work on in practice, she gets it immediately and makes the adjustment in her stroke.”
This weekend, Marsh and her teammates are hoping to make as big a splash as they did a year ago. The Central boys and girls made history in last year’s state meet while the girls were winning their fourth straight Class A team title and the boys their third straight.
Central's boys scored 185 points and finished third overall last year — just eight points behind state champion Bozeman and seven behind runner-up Helena. The Ram girls scored 157 points and finished fourth overall behind co-champions Great Falls CMR and Helena (187) and third-place Missoula Hellgate (167).
The Rams’ team totals and team placing were the highest ever for Class A boys and girls teams in the state meet.
“Last year was a lot of fun. It won’t be easy, but we’d love to do that again,” said Smith. “Both of our teams are shooting for the Class A title and a top four-five-six overall finish.
“Our girls are missing Sophie Malin (who’s spending the school year in Ireland) from last year’s team, so that will make it tougher. But we’ve still got a lot of girls that can score points for us.
“Our boys have a chance to be right up there with Helena, Skyview, Glacier and Hellgate. All of those teams are solid, and whoever has a better day on Saturday is going to come out on top.”
Skyview senior Chandler Crowe has won the 100 backstroke each of the past two seasons, and last year he also won the 200 IM. Crowe clocked a 52.47 in the backstroke last year to win the race by more than seven seconds.
Smith said he's looking forward to the Skyview and Central boys battling it out for top Billings honors, adding that the Falcons and Rams will lock up in a couple of interesting head-to-head matchups.
"Chandler Crowe and Matt Wehr should be a great race in the 200 IM, and Paul Allen (of Skyview) and Pierce Oja (of Central) should be a great race in the breaststroke," he said. "Really looking forward to those two.
"The Central and Skyview boys have a good rivalry going this year. And they haven't faced each other since December, so it should be some great competition."
Preliminaries will be held Friday and finals on Saturday. Swimming begins at 11 a.m. both days.