Paxton Higgerson will be southern Illinois' lone representative at the IHSA state swim meet this weekend, and the Du Quoin High School senior may be driven by a deeper force when he enters the pool.
Higgerson's grandfather, Gary Chaney, passed away in April 2017 and was one of his grandson's biggest fans.
"He had on more influence on my life than any male figure I've ever had," said Higgerson, who has been swimming since he was 9 years old and is a member of the Saluki Swim Club. "I can't recall any of my swim meets he missed.
"He was at every major meet I swam."
Higgerson won the 200-meter individual medley at the Urbana Sectional on Feb. 17, becoming the first sectional champion in swimming in DHS history.
The Swimming Indians are such a small team that a parent, Shalayne Ragar, took the tests to be credentialed as a coach just so she could get the team's three members - Rylan Ragar, Payton Wood and Higgerson - into IHSA meets.
"It's a little odd because it's not something I thought I would do," Ragar said of becoming a coach. "I had to do it to get credentialed to get onto the pool deck."
Shalayne's son, Rylan, swam the 500-yard freestyle at the Urbana Sectional and placed third, but did not qualify for state.
"He's more of a long-distance swimmer and the IHSA isn't really set up for that," Shalayne said of her son. "I'm pretty impressed with him because that's not an event he usually likes to swim."
Higgerson's time of 1:57.64 not only won him a sectional title, but also beat the state's qualifying time of 1:57.77. He will have some work to do at the state meet, where he's seeded 31st heading into Friday's preliminaries.
"It's a personal best time, but I'm pretty confident about it," Higgerson said on his sectional result. "I hope I can swim a little bit faster this weekend. I'm hoping I can match their times, maybe drop a little bit, but if I can't I won't be disappointed."
Hersey High School (Arlington Heights) senior Michael Petro is seeded first with a time of 1:49.78. Preliminary competition begins at 3:30 p.m. Friday, with the finals to start at 11 a.m. Saturday.
"It's definitely an honor," Higgerson said of going to state. "Something I missed out on last year and was really beat up about it.
"I just had the drive from last year in that if I don't do it my senior year, I'm not going to do it at all."
As for the future, Higgerson has four offers on the table to swim in college. His top choices are Hendrix College (Conway, Ark.), Notre Dame College (Cleveland, Ohio) and Transylvania University (Lexington, Ky.).
He is also planning on majoring in game design.
"When I was about 5, I got my first gaming console and fell in love with it instantly," Higgerson said. "It entertained me, it made me happy and I want to give that feeling to other people."