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New swim program is making a splash

Jim Baker can attest to the difference between a recreational program and competitive one.

It's the difference between maintenance and improvement.

Baker knows that it is one thing to get in the pool and train during the summer, quite another to be driven to your best every day.

The evidence can be found on the stopwatch. A year ago _ and in a different program _ Baker would have been doing well to even approach his best times from last year's high school season.

Now, as a member of the Citrus Hills Hilltoppers _ Citrus County's newest competitive swimming program _ Baker is improving on those times.

What does this mean for the 2000 Times Citrus/Hernando Swimmer of the Year?

"It's been a real asset," said Baker, who won a district championship in the 100 backstroke and posted the county's best finish (ninth in the 50 freestyle) at last year's state championships.

"This time last year, I was just approaching my best high school times," he said. "I wasn't under them like I am now."

Baker's words are not intended as a slight on the summer programs at Whispering Pines Park in Inverness or Bicentennial Park in Crystal River.

Those programs are instrumental in getting swimmers like Baker into the pool in the first place _ something that isn't easy given the popularity of other sports. The swimming activities provide the basic instruction on technique and give individuals their first taste of competition.

The Citrus Hills program is for swimmers looking to take the next step in terms of competition, swimmers like Baker who are vying for places among the state's elite.

Another difference, aside from more intense training, is that it's a year-round program. The first of its kind in Citrus County, the program will allow swimmers to train during the winter when other area pools are too cold.

"Normally, you spend the first month and a half of the season getting back to where you left off," said Hilltoppers coach Frank Bachtelor.

"The programs at Bicentennial Park and Whispering Pines give these kids a chance to swim, but once you get into racing shape, all you're doing is staying close to those times. Nine out of 10 will come back and be happy if they are close to the times they left off with.

"This program gives them a chance to improve during the off-season," Bachtelor said.

Baker has done just that this summer, qualifying for the United States Swimming Southeast Regionals in the 100 and 50 freestyle, 100 backstroke and 100 butterfly. His times,though measured in meters as opposed to yards, are right at or below where they were last year.

While he won't be in Columbia, S.C., for the regional meet, the improvement has Baker excited about the possibilities for his senior season of prep swimming.

"I did have to catch up last year to get back to where my times were before," Baker said. "Now I have even more time to get faster before state, where I hope to be better by a second or two."

Baker isn't the only one taking advantage of the Citrus Hills program. Six other high school swimmers are participating in workouts. The other Hilltoppers are Citrus High's Kevin Larkin, Megan St. Clair and Kyle Williams and Lecanto's David Bowman, Adrienne Holland and Amy Rundio.

The program's present appears to be on solid footing, but the near future may hold the most promise. Of the 22 Hilltoppers, including five adults, 10 are between the ages of 10 and 12.

"I'm getting a lot of nice kids in the 11-12 age group, and they're from all over the county," Bachtelor said. "I think they'll be way ahead of the curve. Any chance you get to improve technique, strength, stamina and just get experience is going to help.

"The summer programs are good for recreation and fun, but once you get to the competitive phase, it paints a different picture. These kids will be used to that."

None of it would have been possible, however, had Citrus Hills not donated its pool and assistance. For years, the county's swimmers lamented the absence of a heated, year-round facility. But Citrus Hills came to the rescue last year and worked out a partnership with Bachtelor and the new club.

"We're very happy with the Citrus Hills management group," he said. "They've been very supportive as far as giving us the things we need."