Hailey is known more for its snow than its water, but the area is home to one of the best swimmers in the state: Zach Deal of Wood River High School.
This year, Deal won the 4A state championship in 100-yard breaststroke and placed third in the 200-yard individual medley (IM), an event that combines the four major swimming strokes. His third-place finish marked the only time this season — swimming’s first as a state-sanctioned sport — that Deal didn’t win both events.
Last year, as a sophomore, he said he entered the state tournament as the favorite to win the 100-yard breaststroke, but lost to Cole Curtis of Coeur d’Alene and Sebastian Caho of Mountain View, finishing within a second of both swimmers.
That gave Deal extra motivation to win this year, and it showed: his breaststroke title-winning time of 58.69 seconds was more than two seconds faster than his 2016 time.
“I trained every day with that image in my head of the guys who had beat me slapping the water and celebrating,” Deal said. “It was very nice to walk into the championship as a favorite and actually execute.”
Deal is good at every stroke — stretching back to his club days, he holds the Wood River record for every individual event except the 50-yard freestyle and the 500-yard freestyle — but he’s most exceptional at the breaststroke, the only stroke that doesn’t require a long, overhead motion. He said it’s his favorite, but it takes a slightly different approach than the other strokes.
“It’s a very inefficient stroke,” he said. “So I have to work on a lot more isolation exercises and a lot more on technique to stay as hydrodynamic as possible. Also, I spend a lot of time in high school season in underwater drills, trying to get off walls as quick as I can to give myself an edge outside of the stroke itself.”
Recently, Deal has ventured outside of Idaho to compete in more regional and national tournaments, and he said the difference in competition is marked.
“Once you leave the landlocked state of Idaho, you come to find how small of a fish you are in a very large pond,” he said.
In July, Deal competed in the Los Angeles Invitational at the University of Southern California, where he got to swim in the same pool used in the 1984 summer Olympics. There, he faced competition from top high school talent, Division I standouts and some Olympians. In fact, Deal nearly got to compete against Ryan Lochte, the world-record holder in the 200-meter IM, before Lochte decided not to attend on short notice.
Instead of being the favorite like he was in Idaho, Deal was seeded 49th out of 138 swimmers in the 100-meter breaststroke and 120th out of 178 swimmers in the 200-meter IM.
“Seeing that amount of competition was definitely very inspiring, and it gave me a significant amount of motivation because I recognize that I’m not at the level of winning down in Southern California,” he said.
Deal said he hopes to swim at a Division I program, especially in the Big Ten. But it’s not just swimming he’s interested in pursuing.
He’s also interested in mechanical and electrical engineering, and is currently a member of the Wood River robotics team. Last year, he merged both interests — swimming and robotics — when he built an underwater drone that films a swimmer in motion to give a better angle to study technique and form.
“That was something that I wanted to do to mend that line between swimming and robotics,” Deal said. “One is very mind-oriented, one is more strength-oriented. So with the drone, I was trying to integrate these systems to help swimmers with technique analysis.”
He still has another year of high school ahead of him, and even though high school season is through this year, Deal is putting in over a dozen hours a week to make sure he’s consistently improving.
“It’s great to see everything come together,” he said, “but honestly I’m very self-motivated and I know that getting comfortable is when you start losing races.”