Girls swimming: Lofty goals for a loaded East Lake team

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Mon. August 19, 2013 | Bob Putnam | Email

Girls swimming: Lofty goals for a loaded East Lake team

EAST LAKE — Go ahead. Try to find a weakness on an East Lake girls swim team that returns a two-time state champion (Sydney Pickrem) and a two-time state place winner (Michelle Turek).

Look for a chink in the armor of a team bolstered by the addition of a national-caliber swimmer (Alexandra Aitchison) and a former state qualifier (Annika Smith), both of whom transferred in the offseason.

Life is good for the Eagles, so much that coach Tim O’Keefe found out another swimmer — already a college commit — transferred Monday.

“I don’t even know the swimmer’s name that’s coming in,” O’Keefe said. “I just heard that she’s here, and that she’s supposed to be pretty good.”

The stakes are high for East Lake, which has talent to end Palm Harbor University’s four-year reign as conference champion. In fact, the Eagles are good enough to entertain thoughts about contending for a state team title.

“Things have come together real nice, and we look good on paper,” O’Keefe said. “I know a lot of things would have to go right, but there’s at least a shot for that to happen.”

It all starts with Pickrem, a junior who won a state title in the 100 breast two years ago and the 200 individual medley last year. The Times’ 2012 Pinellas swimmer of the year is versatile enough to swim in just about any event and talented enough to swim for the Canadian National team in next week’s World Junior Swimming championships in Dubai.

Last year, East Lake added Michelle Turek, who transferred from Palm Harbor University. She teamed with Pickrem to form a solid duo, but the Eagles did not have the numbers to make a serious run at the Hurricanes for area supremacy.

“I think we’re better this year,” said Turek, who was fourth at state last year in the 100 and 200 free. “We have a lot of strong swimmers and more depth. We were all pretty confident before but having the new additions is a good thing. Our team has gotten stronger in almost every event.”

The biggest addition is Aitchison, who moved from Arizona to train with the Clearwater Aquatic Team and club coach Randy Reese. Aitchison also is a member of the Canadian National Team with Pickrem and qualified for the World Junior championships in the 400 free.

Smith, a sprinter, returns to East Lake after spending last year at Countryside. Besides swimming in multiple events, that quartet could be the foundation for relay teams that contend for titles, a huge plus in points that are needed to ultimately win a state team title.

The numbers game can be tricky. And the Eagles do have to get through a district and region in Class 4A that is considered one of the toughest — and fastest— in the state. But the Florida High School Athletic Association did make changes in how swimmers advance through the postseason. Now, only the top two qualifiers in districts and regionals automatically qualify. The other top 12 are determined by the fastest times, meaning the bulk of swimmers could come from the same district or region.

“Palm Harbor is always going to be tough and there’s a great rivalry there,” O’Keefe said. “It’s good to know that we have something to make a run if it all works out.”

Bob Putnam can be reached at putnam@tampabay.com or on Twitter @BobbyHomeTeam.

Photo: Michelle Turek

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