East Lake's Alexandra Aitchison and Sydney Pickrem spent the summer competing around the world in swim meets.
At times during the high school season, they will be gone again, each traveling to different colleges on recruiting trips as two of the state's top four prospects in the 2015 class.
When the postseason season rolls around, though, Aitchison and Pickrem are committed to staying at home and swimming with the Eagles.
Because of that, East Lake is the overwhelming favorite to win the school's first state team in girls swimming in Class 4A.
Aitchison, the Tampa Bay Times Pinellas County girls swimmer of the year, won the 200 and 500 freestyle and swam on the winning 200 medley and 400 free relay teams at last year's state meet. Pickrem, the Times' Pinellas girls swimmer of the year in 2011 and '12, could not compete in individual events at state because she swam in the FINA World Cup during qualifying for district and region meets.
Aitchison and Pickrem will team with Michelle Turek, who was second in the 100 and 200 free at state. All three will be favored to finish in the top two of their individual events and give the Eagles the kind of top level talent no other team can match.
"The classification is tough and anything can happen during the season," East Lake coach Tim O'Keefe said. "It's not automatic that we go out and win a team title, but we do have the talent, especially with Lexy and Sydney both assuring me they will have no conflicts during the postseason."
Aitchison and Pickrem are not the only area girls projected to be at the top of the podium. Three other state champions — Newsome's Maddie Hess (100 free and 100 back), Mitchell's Taylor Anderson (50 free) and Academy at the Lakes' Abbey Duncan (200 free, previously at Wesley Chapel) — all return.
Hess is a two-time defending champion in both events and beat Pickrem in the 100 back in 2012. Anderson and Duncan each won their first state titles last season.
The depth is so strong among girls that many events at state could have multiple area place-winners. In 4A, the area could win all eight girls individual events with Aitchison, Hess and Pickrem leading. And that list doesn't include Plant's Ally Donahue, the 2013 4A champion in the 50 free and 100 breaststroke, who graduated early and is now at Florida.
"The quality of swimming with the girls is as good as it's ever been in my 22 years of doing this," Plant girls coach Gil Gonzalez said. "And there is a lot of strong young swimmers that are coming up, too."
By contrast, the area had four male state champions graduate, including two from Palm Harbor University's program that won the 4A team title. The only returning champions among boys are Sickles' Nazareno Boscaino (500 free) and Ridgewood's Emir Muratovic (50 free).
"The boys are somewhat in transition given how many have graduated," O'Keefe said. "But girls swimming is incredibly deep. This could be the best year yet."