Cape Elizabeth High seniors Emily Ecker, left, and Caroline Mahoney have landed Division I scholarships. Ecker will be swimming for the University of Wisconsin and Mahoney for Bucknell. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

CAPE ELIZABETH — For the old poet, two roads diverged in a yellow wood.

For Cape Elizabeth High seniors Emily Ecker and Caroline Mahoney, fast friends since they were 12, two lanes diverged in a chlorinated pool.

After breaking records and celebrating a Class B state championship as freshmen, Ecker veered away from interscholastic competition to train exclusively with her club team, the Portland Porpoises. By contrast, Mahoney continued to juggle the demands of her club team, Coastal Maine Aquatics, with those of her high school team and has helped the Capers win two more state titles.

Last month, each swimmer signed a national letter of intent to continue her athletic career on partial scholarship at a Division I collegiate program. Ecker chose the University of Wisconsin and Mahoney picked Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

It wasn’t so much the bona fide team rule – adopted by the Maine Principals’ Association in 2004 to prevent athletes from practicing in season with private coaches and then joining their school teams for games or meets – that dissuaded Ecker from swimming for Cape Elizabeth.

She said she had fun as both Porpoise and Caper her freshman year, when she was named Performer of the Meet at Southwesterns and later set a state record in the 500-yard freestyle (of 4 minutes, 56.15 seconds) that still stands.

Ecker also teamed up with Mahoney and two older Cape swimmers, Alicia Lawrence and Olivia Tighe, to set a 400 freestyle relay record of 3:32.67 that remained until last February, when the other three, along with Hope Campbell, lowered the mark at the state meet.

Campbell (Wheaton), Tighe (Duke) and Lawrence (Cornell) all went on to swim in college.

“I did love high school swimming,” Ecker said. “But I’m primarily a distance swimmer and high school swimming is primarily sprinting.”

There is overlap. In USA Swimming, Ecker swims 200- and 500-yard freestyle races (the longest for individual races in high school) as well as 1,650 yards.

“So I need to get my longer distance training,” she said. “I realized, after freshman year, that club swimming and high school swimming weren’t meant to be together for me.”

Swimming isn’t the only sport in which Maine athletes have opted out of high school competition. Tennis, skiing, soccer and ice hockey also have their share of converts. Often, the possibility of an athletic scholarship is part of the enticement.

Mahoney admitted there were times she had been tempted to focus solely on club swimming in hopes of realizing her NCAA Division I goal.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s been on my mind,” she said. “But something always brings me back to this: it’s a fun time. (Club swimming) is fun, but 85 percent of it is intense, hard work, swimming and dry-land (training), and you need to be all in.”

She swept an arm at the scene behind her at Richards Pool, where music played and waves of teammates plunged into the water on the voice command of Coach Ben Raymond.

“This is kind of like my escape,” Mahoney said. “My fun-being-in-the-pool and being one giant team and doing something where you can laugh.”

Mahoney is tall and effusive and quick to laugh. Her words come in bursts, rising and falling with her level of excitement. In addition to swimming, she has thrown herself into high school theater, recently wrapping up her third musical, ‘Footloose’, after starring in ‘Legally Blonde’ last spring and ‘Disaster! The Musical!’ as a sophomore.

At Bucknell, she plans to minor in theater and create her own communications major by blending English, marketing and film & media.

In the pool, Mahoney has won individual state titles in the 50 free, 100 backstroke and 200 free. Later this week, Mahoney and Ecker will compete in the USA Winter Junior Championships in Atlanta. Mahoney will swim the 50 free, 100 back and 200 back. Ecker will swim the 200, 500 and 1,650 freestyle.

She flew down on Monday in order to swim a time trial Tuesday before organizers transform the Georgia Tech pool from meters to yards. In order to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Trials (scheduled for Omaha, Nebraska, in June), Ecker needs to shave 5 seconds off her best time (4:21) in the 400-meter freestyle.

“I’m not sure if it will happen this time, but it’s just another opportunity for me to try,” she said. “The 800 and the 400 are my two closest. I don’t know if I’ll make it, but it’s a goal.”

Ecker does more than swim. When time permits, she competes for her high school math team, has joined the bee club (“We have some hives out on the track”) and collects used clothing for donation to the Preble Street Resource Center. She is interested in pre-med at Wisconsin.

After considering a return to the Capers for her senior season, Ecker opted to remain on her chosen club path.

“Yes, it would be nice to have another Division I swimmer swimming for us again,” Raymond said. “But I totally get it. People have ultimate goals, and however they need to get there is how you get there.”

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