Belchertown swimmer Ben Laclair ‘wired not to lose’

  • Belchertown junior Benjamin Leclair won the 500-yard freestyle in 4:41.67 at the Western Massachusetts Swimming and Diving Championships held at Springfield College on Saturday, February 11, 2017. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Belchertown junior Benjamin Leclair won the 500-yard freestyle in 4 minutes, 41.67 seconds at the Western Massachusetts Swimming and Diving Championships, Feb. 11 at Springfield College. Leclair is looking for his first state individual title on Sunday. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 2/17/2017 7:52:17 PM

Ben Laclair anchors Belchertown’s 400-yard freestyle relay.

He swims last and provides a sense of security for the Orioles.

Belchertown trailed Longmeadow by .69 seconds entering the final leg of the race’s last heat at the Western Massachusetts championships when Laclair hit the water.

His teammates never doubted he would get to the finishing wall first.

“We definitely back loaded because Ben’s wired not to lose. He won’t let himself lose,” Belchertown senior Dennis Lelic said. “We always have faith in Ben to bring it home and out-touch whoever we’re racing.”

He usually delivers.

Laclair, a junior, owns eight first-place medals from Western Mass., including three from relays he anchored, and a state title in a relay in 2015.

But the times he didn’t come through, when he couldn’t out-touch the opposition, stick with him, like last year at the Division 2 state championships.

Canton’s Sebastian Melendez beat Laclair in the 200 freestyle and 500 freestyle despite Laclair entering the meet as the top seed in both events.

Melendez won the 200 by nearly two seconds, but squeezed in front of Laclair in the 500 by .62 seconds.

“I’ve thought about that a lot, how much I hated getting out-touched, and I use that in practice to motivate me to try that much harder,” Laclair said.

He’ll have his chance at redemption and his first individual state championship starting at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Boston University.

Swimming distance freestyle gives Laclair ample time to think. His brain doesn’t drift to popular songs or homework while it’s oxygen deprived.

“I think about my stroke a lot. I pay a lot of attention to how my arms are feeling. I use where other people are as a guide, usually,” he said. “As mean as it sounds, I use how far ahead of people I am to gauge if I’m going fast enough or not. I think about when I need to be splitting. I think about people telling me when I need to go.”

The two people that keep Laclair on pace are Belchertown coach Nick Provost and Lelic.

Provost and Laclair discuss his goal times and figure out what splits it will take to achieve them.

“I like it when he goes out fast,” Provost said. “Once he gets in shape and once he finds his groove in the season, he just kind of takes off, and you just kind of let him go.”

Laclair has to look for queues from the pool deck during the 200. Lelic keeps him paced from the far wall as his counter during the 500.

“Has been since freshman year. It’s a tradition at this point,” Laclair said. “At big meets, I don’t let anyone else count.”

Lelic receives signals from Provost and delivers the messages to Laclair in the water in how he dunks or moves the lap counting card. He takes his job seriously.

“During Western Mass. and states it’s important for me to look over at Nick and keep Ben paced at the times and the splits he wants to go,” Lelic said. “It’s pretty serious.”

They’ve swam together for more than 10 years on various recreation, high school and USA swimming teams. Lelic embraces the responsibility of being Laclair’s counter.

“I love supporting Ben like that. He’s an incredible swimmer. Great guy all-around,” Lelic said. “I think it’s fun to watch him because he’s so far ahead of everyone else. He has a lot of fun with it.”

But why?

Distance freestyle events are grueling trials of endurance and suffering. Athletes must balance their pacing, form and breathing to stay at or near top speed for as long as possible. They aren’t for everyone.

“I’m not like everyone else. I like to do freestyle, really,” Laclair said. “I’m a pretty good runner. I play soccer, as well, so I’ve got good endurance. It’s just something I like to do a lot. I like to throw all my energy into whatever I can that seems to best fit me.”

Valley well represented

Northampton junior Nick Whitcomb won the 100 backstroke state title as a sophomore.

He’s seeded No. 1 again at 51.73 seconds. Westborough’s Spencer Brownwell is No. 2 at 55.13.

Whitcomb also enters as the top seed in the 100 butterfly at 52 seconds flat. He’s more than a second clear of the second seed.

Fellow junior Quinn Nortonsmith is the Blue Devils’ other individual swimmer at state. They’re qualified in all three relays, as well.

Nortonsmith is the second seed in the 100 breaststroke at 1:01.02, .03 seconds behind Marc Bourgeois of Old Rochester.

Nortonsmith is the third seed in the 50 freestyle at 22.22 seconds, an event he swam for the first time in a high school championship meet setting at Western Mass. Duxbury’s Nat Davenport leads the field in 21.75 seconds.

Amherst will bring two individuals: Noah Labich and Yonatan Ben-Chaim (200 individual medley, 100 butterfly) in addition to three relay teams and diver Luca Brashear.

Labich is the second seed in the 200 IM in 2:02.08 and third in the 100 backstroke at 55.97.

Brashear took fifth last season on 1-meter diving. He was second at Western Mass. last weekend.

Belchertown has Christopher Chumbley in the 200 IM (third seed, 2:02.52) and the 100 backstroke (seventh seed), while Dennis Lelic is swimming the 100 freestyle (ninth) and 100 backstroke (11th). The Orioles will contest all three relays, as well.

South Hadley’s Nathan McClure is swimming the 200 IM and 100 butterfly.

Girls championship

The girls Division 2 state meet starts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, also at BU.

Northampton freshman Ruby Gottlieb, a Western Mass. champion, is the second seed in the 100 butterfly at 58.79. Duxbury’s Grace Ali leads the pack in 56.57.

Belchertown’s Hailey Synan will be the fourth seed in both the 200 freestyle (2:00.86) and 500 freestyle (5:21.22).

Easthampton divers Brielle Bergeron and Amelia Craig are competing, as well as Northampton’s Jordyn Vandergrift.

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at

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