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Diver, 11, makes quick return _ all way to nationals

When Katie Smolen resumed diving about a month ago, qualifying for a national competition was the last thing on the 11-year-old's mind.

Nonetheless, Smolen advanced past regional and zone competitions last month to qualify for this week's U.S. Diving Championships in Orlando.

Tuesday, the rising sixth-grader at Osceola Middle School competed among 26 divers and finished 23rd in platform diving.

"I thought I did the best I've ever done and am proud," said Smolen. "I was nervous, but I just told myself not to be and that I could do it _ and I did."

Besides telling herself not to be nervous, Smolen has another aid to reduce anxiety. She brings her lucky teddy bear, Brownie, to all her competitions.

"I started diving when I was 6 years old but quit two years ago," said Smolen. "It was too difficult to schedule with school and gymnastics and I had to choose between the two."

Smolen began gymnastics when she was 3, so choosing tumbling and vaulting in the gym was a more obvious choice than flipping and twisting off the boards.

Trained at LaFleur's Gymnastics Club in Largo, Smolen and her older sister, Amanda, both show promise in the competitive arena. Amanda was a Level 5 all-around state champion and this year will compete in Level 7 optional along with Katie.

"No doubt there is a correlation between gymnastics and diving," said Mike LaFleur, who with his wife Melody train the Smolen sisters. "The two sports relate so well to one another with a lot of flipping and good form stressed in both sports, along with strong discipline regarding form and technique."

LaFleur encourages experiencing a variety of sports instead of limiting involvement to just one.

Katie Smolen also believes what she has learned in gymnastics _ especially twisting on the vault and floor routines _ carries over to her diving performance.

At the national competition, she was required to make seven different dives off the platform. A top-12 finish Tuesday would have advanced her to Wednesday's finals.

"It's pretty amazing what Katie did with being back to diving only about six weeks," said George Purdue, diving coach at the Suncoast Diving Club in Largo. "I thought if she hit well, she had a chance. I was hesitant to mention any of that to her even though platform is her strong event."

Smolen trains with the Suncoast Diving Club at the Southwest Pool in Largo. Purdue became head coach last October and brings years of experience.

Also qualifying for the nationals from the Suncoast Diving Club was Austin Hampton, 12, of St. Petersburg. Tuesday, Hampton placed among the top 15 in platform diving and is competing on the 1-meter board this weekend. A top-12 finish today would put him in the 1-meter finals Sunday.

SWIMMING: The Clearwater Aquatic Team placed third at the Speedo Junior Nationals last month in Orlando for the highest overall finish among Florida teams, according to CAT coach Chuck Burgess. Competing for CAT were Lindsay Hansen, Jessica Schrock, Lauren Bullock, Melissa Smith, Ashley Messmore, Raymond Rosal and Jason Brauer.

MORE SWIMMING: Today through Sunday the Pinellas Aquatic League Championships are being held at the Long Center in Clearwater. Eight teams are entered, including the Bardmoor Aquatic Team, Carlouel Yacht Club, Countryside Country Club Aquatics, host East Lake Woodlands, Lakewood Country Club, Lansbrook Aquatics, the Vinoy Vipers and the Westlake Village Swim Team. Countryside is the defending PAL champion.

ICE SKATING: The Tampa Bay Skating Club in Oldsmar is hosting its eighth annual Orange Blossom Open through this weekend. More than 200 skaters are expected to compete in ice dancing, freestyle and pairs events. For information, call the academy at 784-5382.

TWIRLERS: Deb's Allstars Baton Twirling Academy in Largo won first place in three categories at the Drum Majorettes of America National Finals Team Competition held at Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina recently. The team won in dance twirl, show team and pom team.

ROLLER HOCKEY: The Largo Lizards 10-and-under team is in Atlanta this weekend competing in the North American Roller Hockey Championships and will travel to Las Vegas for the Tournament of Roller Hockey Series Aug. 12-15.

Players include John Grasso, Shan Isett, Jason Almcrantz, Myels Harvey, Kurtis Rhoton, Alex Schlau, Eric Busch, Tommy Fairall, Abraham Ross and Max Richberg. John Isett and Paul Grasso coach the team.

FOOTBALL: Youths ages 8-15 who are interested in participating in the Pinellas Youth Football Conference should contact one of the following organizations: Childs Park Jr. Rattlers (823-2262), Gibbs Jr. Gladiators (327-3993), Greenwood Panthers (442-6986), Lakewood Jr. Spartans (322-0102), Largo Jr. Packers (581-7015), Pinellas Park Thunderbirds (391-4349) and St. Pete L'll Devils (865-9091).

Players and cheerleaders are eligible for any organization regardless of residence.

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