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Former DLHS swimmers and diver taking it to the next level...

Former Laker Jon Melgaard takes one of his diving attempts during last season’s Big 10 season as a University of Minnesota Golden Gopher diver. SUBMITTED PHOTO

In the history of Detroit Lakes swimming and diving, Melissa Paakh, Jon Melgaard and Quillan Oak have arguably left some of the biggest impacts on the program.

Each has etched enduring marks into the Laker record board, and all three earned top honors at the Minnesota high school state meets in their senior years.

Competition for these talented Lakers didn’t end after graduation. Their successes in high school attracted the attention of some of the most competitive programs in the country, and all three have advanced to compete on the Division I level in college swimming and diving.

Paakh a record setter at DLHS

Paakh, a 2011 graduate, consistently shattered records as a Laker swimmer. She also became the first Laker girl to ever win a state championship in 2010 with her first-place finish in the 100 butterfly, providing a storybook ending to her high school career.

Knowing she wanted to continue swimming in college, Paakh signed on to the University of Utah’s Division I program.

“On my recruiting trip everyone on the team kept talking about how it felt like a family and that the team would always have your back. That was what I loved most about the DLHS high school team and I am so thankful that that was exactly what I got in my college team,” Paakh said of her decision to swim for the Utes.

“Choosing to go to Utah was definitely a leap of faith, but I absolutely love being a part of the University of Utah swim team. I couldn’t be happier about where I chose to continue my education and swimming career.”

However, transitioning from high school to college swimming wasn’t easy.

“When I came into my freshman year it was definitely hard for me to adjust to the level of training,” Paakh said. “It was very intimidating at first but after about two or three months I started to get used to the intensity as well as training at altitude.”

During the week, Paakh begins practice at 6 a.m. for two hours, followed by more pool time in the afternoon. Time in the water is supplemented with lifting and dryland routines, which she said, “can include anything from sand bags, to flipping tires or running stairs.”

At the collegiate level, Paakh also experiences an increased emphasis on the importance of nutrition, and she and her teammates work with trainers to address individual needs.

Supportive professors help in achieving a balance between school and swimming. “We are extremely lucky to have an amazing academic advisor as well as an academic center for athletes that provide us with everything you would possibly need to succeed in school,” she said.

Paakh is pursuing a degree in strategic communications and a minor in entrepreneurship.

“I think swimming and any sport at this level teaches kids things they don’t necessarily learn in the classroom. Teamwork, commitment, persistence, and hard work are all qualities I owe to swimming and plan on applying to my future career,” she said of the sport’s impact on her life.

Paakh has also enjoyed the opportunity to swim with the international students on her team, and she said, “I have loved being able to experience different cultures this way and learn about the countries that everyone is from.”

Her primary events at the Division I level are the 100 and 200 butterfly, breaststroke, and 200 IM (individual medley). Paakh has been inspired by the opportunity to swim against some of the fastest women in the world in the Pac 12 Conference.

“I feel so lucky to be able to travel around the country, compete in the sport I love, and get an education at the same time,” she said of her experience.

While Paakh loves the campus and mountains of Utah, she misses the lakes of Minnesota and remains connected to her roots in Detroit Lakes.

Remembering the encouragement from family, friends, coaches, and members of the community, she said, “I am so thankful and proud of where I came from! Having that kind of hometown support has definitely helped me adjust to life in Salt Lake City.”

Planning to carry swimming through the rest of her life, Paakh said, “If I go back to Minnesota I would love to help out with either high school swimming or Sunfish one day.”

Diving in the Big 10

Melgaard, 2011 graduate, still holds both diving records for the boys in Detroit Lakes. His victory at the Minnesota State High School meet 2011 topped off a highly successful high school career and attracted the attention of recruiters from the University of Minnesota.

“I guess I had always dreamed of being a Golden Gopher,” Melgaard said. “Everyone in Minnesota can identify with the Gophers, and that’s what I strived to be.”

The reputation of the University of Minnesota diving program and world class coaching staff were major contributing factors to his decision.

Melgaard had also competed in the university’s diving well during numerous state meets. 

“Going into freshman year was quite the eye-opening experience,” Melgaard said of making the jump from high school to Division I.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be a star athlete, but I wanted to see if I could do it,” he said of the challenge of entering a highly competitive program.

Opting to redshirt, or delay competition to extend eligibility, his freshman year, Melgaard said the first season was about perfecting technique and honing skills. Diving at the U of M also provided the opportunity to practice with some of the best in the country.

“Diving with Olympic caliber divers was amazing but intimidating,” Melgaard said.

He was required to put in three hours of practice each day, which included an hour of dryland followed by two hours in the pool. He also spent additional time in the weight room, a physically demanding schedule. 

Enrolled in the business program with majors in non-profit management and entrepreneurship, Melgaard said, “at times at the Division I level you question whether you’re a student-athlete or athlete-student. I wanted to make sure I had my priorities straight.”

As a co-valedictorian of his graduating class, Melgaard had little difficulty in putting his status as a student first, and the coaching staff was very supportive.

“They provide a lot of resources. Their goal is for you to be eligible, so they do everything possible to get you to that mark,” he said of the required maintained GPA for competition.

On the contrast between competition at the high school and collegiate levels, Melgaard said, “it didn’t even compare — I had no idea what I was getting into.”

Diving against athletes with greater experience who pushed themselves through even more intense training, he said, “I really struggled to not just keep up or compete at the bare minimum.”

As a stand-out diver in high school  and a consistent leader of the section, Melgaard said, “I wasn’t used to being the little fish in the big pond,” when he transitioned to the elevated level of collegiate competition.

Melgaard credits his high school coach, Bobbi Jo Koons and other members of the community as being instrumental in easing the transition in his first months of college.

“I know that support will continue wherever I decide to compete in the future,” he said.

Sophomore year did yield big gains after the foundation was laid in his first season, and he said, “I progressed so much further this year than I did last year.”

However, after two years with the Gopher diving team, Melgaard said, “the rigors of D-I and diving were getting to be quite a bit for me.” Discussing his options with Coach Wenbo Chen, he was conflicted, but Melgaard ultimately decided, “it might be best to not keep going with it.”

Melgaard will be taking a year off from competition, but continues to train. He will be going through recruitment processes in the future, with the possibility of competing for another team later on.

“I would never take back the two years, and it was not a bad experience,” Melgaard said of his seasons on the University of Minnesota team. “It really set me up to continue my training.”

“I learned so much, and I would never be as good as I currently am if it weren’t for the experience with the Gophers.”

Melgaard is spending the summer as an “Entrepreneur in residence” with the Kilbourne Group in Fargo, and is diving with the MSUM team to stay in shape. His passion for diving remains undiminished, as he continues to practice in preparation for a return to competition in the future.

“Diving has always been my go-to form of exercise, so I like to think that it will continue to be so after I am done competing,” Melgaard said of life after college.

He also plans to maintain his connections to Detroit Lakes, and said, “I will always follow the sport, and especially the upcoming Lakers! I will always be a Laker at heart!”

Oak becomes a Hawkeye

Oak graduated in 2012 from Detroit Lakes, and traded in his Laker red and white for Hawkeye black and gold at the University of Iowa, recently completing his freshman year.

While swimming, Oak is pursuing a journalism major and is deciding between English and sports studies as a second major. He is also working towards a certificate in human rights.

“I knew in my gut Iowa was where I needed to be if I wanted to reach my full potential,” Oak said of his college decision.

The transition from high school to college athletics was intense, with the addition of weight training and dry-land routines, as well as the elevated difficulty of practices.

“It took a huge toll on me physically and mentally,” Oak said.

A normal week of practice for the Hawkeyes consists of three to four morning practices a week, beginning at 6 a.m., which feature an hour of weight training followed by an hour in the pool. The athletes return in the afternoon for over two more hours of swimming, and Oak is required to attend three hours of practice on Saturdays.

Reflecting upon his experiences in Detroit Lakes and his freshman year at the Division I level, Oak said, “compared to high school practices, college practices are much, much more intense. Our warm up sets in college are what I would expect for a main set in high school.”

“My body was physically and mentally beaten all the time, and it takes a lot of getting used to.”

This rigorous training routine must also be balanced with the demands of college classes, and Oak is required to log mandatory study hours as an athlete.

“I feel that staying active really helps my mindset to not be lazy and save homework for later, doing it right before it’s due or not doing it at all. It is very demanding though, mostly mentally. It took some adjusting, but I have learned to enjoy it.”

Oak won the 100 breaststroke at the Minnesota State High School meet in 2012, and continues to swim both the 100 and 200 breaststroke races for the Hawkeyes.

The difficult adjustment to practice and competition at the Division I collegiate level took a toll during his freshman season. Struggling with the physical and mental fatigue, Oak had difficulty swimming at top speed.

Another emotional challenge came right before competition at the Big Ten meet, when Oak learned his grandfather and idol had passed away.

Of his freshman season, Oak said, “I was very frustrated with myself, and was very negative. I learned a valuable lesson from that, and now this summer, I am staying positive every practice and I am performing in practice and in meets way faster than I ever have before.”

Training is a year-long endeavor for the college athlete, and Oak continues to swim in Iowa with the Hawkeye club team over the summer.

An intense first season has already yielded big gains and pushed Oak beyond his performance level in high school.

“In college, especially this summer, the workouts have taught me that my body is capable of way more than what I first thought,” Oak said.

“I think all of these things added up have made me a better and smarter swimmer,” Oak said of the challenges in his first year, and he is gearing up to tackle a new season.

Oak is currently training in preparation to compete in the US Open meet in August, and is working towards making the NCAA team in his sophomore year.

Oak plans to apply his skills as a swimmer after college as well.

“I do plan on keeping swimming very involved in my life, for the rest of my life,” Oak said of the potential to coach and to find other ways to stay involved with the sport in the future.

“My goal has always been to apply my skills in a way that will benefit other people as well as keep me in an active and challenging lifestyle.”

Oak’s ultimate mission is to join the US Navy’s Naval Special Warfare groups and to become part of the Navy SEAL program.

Article written by Libby Larson of Detroit Lakes Newspapers