LAND O’LAKES — While most standout high school athletes will dabble in more than one sport, Sunlake’s Kara Wilkins flourishes exclusively in the pool.
And it’s been that way since she was 5.
It’s not that mom, Pam, who swam collegiately at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, didn’t give her options.
“Anything else, she’s literally like a fish out of water,” her mother said.
Like the time Wilkins was playing basketball at age 12, taking a few minutes away from swim practice. She broke her arm.
“I just don’t have very good coordination,” she said. “A whole lot of people tell me, ‘Good thing you’re a swimmer, otherwise you’d fall.’ ”
A reminder sits at Busch Gardens, site of her first cast-inducing tumble. The rope a 5-year-old Wilkins fell over in Land of the Dragons is still there, haunting her on every repeat trip.
Not long after that cast came off, by the way, she fell off a scooter. For those keeping score, yes, that’s three broken arms.
But she broke through in a good way last year, qualifying for the state meet in both the 100 fly and the 100 back.
Wilkins is one of three female swimmers who earned Tampa Bay Times’ first-team all-North Suncoast recognition as freshmen last season. Abbey Duncan, a club teammate of Wilkins that transferred from Wesley Chapel to Academy at the Lakes this year, heads the trio as a defending state champion. Pierce Imperialbobis is the other returning first-teamer, a big part of what’s expected to be another strong Land O’Lakes squad.
Nicole Koutras, daughter of Sunlake head coach Shelly, had a pretty good freshman year herself in helping the Seahawks to a first-ever district title.
“And we’ve got some surprises up our sleeve,” said Shelly Koutras, hinting at some move-in team members that will make Sunlake even tougher than its 2013 district champion.
Wilkins was a nationally-ranked distance swimmer at age 10 but began to concentrate on the tougher butterfly and back strokes. She set Sunlake marks in the 100 back, 100 fly and the 100 breast, the latter an event she claims to struggle in. And Wilkins was on the record-setting 400 free relay team.
“Whatever I threw at her, she was like, ‘Okay, Coach. I’ll do it,’ ” Koutras said.
Admitting to a little nerves in last year’s preliminary rounds, Wilkins shook them off to win the state consolation final in the butterfly, good for ninth place. She came in 10th in the backstroke.
Many high school swimmers practice exclusively with their club teams, but Wilkins tries to practice with both — though it makes for some long days.
It helps that Sunlake works out at the Land O’Lakes Recreation Center, literally right across the street from the Wilkins’ household.
“I like having that chemistry with my team, rather than just show up on match day and not know half of my teammates,” she said.
But at practice with Clearwater Aquatics, which has a Hunter’s Green branch, she gets the ultimate push. It’s on that team she’s joined by Duncan, who had a stunning freshman year capped by the first state title in Wesley Chapel history.
Duncan almost made it a double, winning the 200 free before finishing second in the butterfly.
She just got back from Irvine, Calif., competing in the massive Junior National Championship.
“With her and Madison (Conway, Wiregrass Ranch junior), us three pretty much race each other. It really pushes me to be my best,” Wilkins said.
Imperialbobis is best in the water. She’ll have swim practice most days for what many would be an exhausting four hours.
“Yeah, I get tired. But it’s when we run on land,” said Imperialbobis of the hour or so non-aquatic part of her conditioning.
For Imperialbobis the goal is clear: reach the state meet in the 500 freestyle, her best event. Last year she won the event at districts and was fourth in the regionals, just missing out on a state trip.
Land O’Lakes has another tremendous sophomore in Megan Thai, who was part of the state-qualifying 200 medley and 400 free relay teams for the Gators last season.