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Area swim talent keeps on churning

Newsome’s Kati Kyle is seeded first in the 100 backstroke for this year’s Class 3A state meet.

GEN YAMAGUCHI | Times (2008)

Newsome’s Kati Kyle is seeded first in the 100 backstroke for this year’s Class 3A state meet.

At last year's state meet, bay area swimmers were so improbably fast, making up so much ground in a foaming, desperate attempt to reach the wall first, they not only won titles, but set one record and nearly broke three more.

An area-record 11 swimmers won titles in individual or relay events, including Newsome's Jason Taylor, who set the state mark in the 500-yard freestyle in four minutes, 23.42 seconds.

It was widely speculated that area swimmers would not have as steady a climb to the top of the medal stand at this year's state meet, which starts Thursday at the Orlando YMCA.

After all, eight of the 11 swimmers who won individual titles or helped a relay team achieve one graduated, including Northeast's Megan Romano and Sickles' Conor Swanson, the 2008-09 Pinch A Penny state girls and boys swimmers of the year.

Even worse, the swimmers still around no longer have the benefit of high-tech polyurethane suits, which were banned by the National Federation of State High School Associations at the start of this season.

Those two factors seemed to spell doom and many wondered how they would fare without them.

The answer: nearly as well.

The area has showed plenty of evidence of a restocked talent pool with the chance of coming close to matching last year's record medal haul.

Six swimmers from the area own the top seed in their events. And that list does not include Seminole High's Kaitlin Frehling, the two-time defending state champion in the 50 free and 100 fly, and Palm Harbor University's Wes Stearns, the defending state champion in the 200 free.

"We might not be able to have as many champions from around the area as we did last year," said Palm Harbor University coach Lisa Bitting, whose boys team won the Class 3A team title last year. "But we can come pretty darn close. It shows the quality of the swimming programs around here to lose so many strong swimmers and not have a severe drop-off."

Only eight times in the state meet's 89-year existence has the area produced eight or more individual title winners. Five of those came this decade.

Advances in training techniques, the attraction of better athletes, the abundance of year-round club programs and pool design have contributed to the sport's popularity in the area, as well as an increase in gold medals.

"I noticed the swim teams around have really large numbers, more than I was used to," said Northeast's Lauren Piper, who transferred from Sarasota Riverview. "We won a state title at the school I was at before, but we only had 16-18 swimmers. A lot of the schools here have 70 or more students who want to swim.

"And the competition has been really fast. Last week's region meet was just as fast as a state meet."

Gold medals are one thing. Speed is another. At the Pinellas County Athletic Conference meet, records have been broken in 23 of the 28 boys and girls events in the past five years. Area swimmers have set state marks the past two years.

Part of the reason for such fast times can be contributed to swimsuits that would make Flipper envious.

The high-tech polyurethane suits that turn swimmers' bodies into sleek kayaks became all the rage the past two years, partly because they provide more buoyancy and put the body in a more streamlined position in the water.

"People would wear them the farther along they went in the postseason," Bitting said. "It was to give an edge."

That edge no longer exists. Suits are now restricted to textiles or woven materials. The coverage of boys' suits will be limited to between the waist and kneecaps, and the girls' suits between the shoulder and kneecaps.

"You'll notice a little bit of a difference in times," Bitting said. "The fast times might not be as deep. But you'll see some, as well as records broken this year."

Bob Putnam can be reached at putnam@sptimes.com

Area swim talent keeps on churning 11/09/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 9, 2009 8:45pm]
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