Swimming wasn't the first choice, or even the second, for Rae-Lynn Sheffield, but it looks like the right one at the moment.
"We just threw Rae-Lynn in," said her mother, Holly. "We were looking for a sport for her and, at that time, she could not hit a ball or kick a ball and was not very coordinated. But the first time her coach saw her swim, he said she could be fabulous."
Could be? Nearly four years after finding her sport, the 12-year-old Brooksville resident enters her third Florida Long Course Junior Olympic Championships in Sarasota today No. 1 in her age group in the 50-meter backstroke, third in the 50 breaststroke and in the top nine in four other events.
"When I first started, I got really nervous," Rae-Lynn said. "But when I started doing the same times as the fastest girls, I guess I noticed I could do it."
Rae-Lynn's younger brother, Barrett, 10, has been swimming for three years and will join his sister in the tournament ranked in the top eight in the 50 and 100 breast.
Barrett, a rising fifth-grader at Floyd Elementary, enjoys swimming but also plays football, soccer and _ his all-time favorite _ baseball.
That full slate perhaps is why he's more capricious about swimming than his sister.
"Barrett is care-free and a jokester," said his mother, a luxury suite attendant at the Ice Palace. "For him, there's no pressure. For Rae-Lynn it's a lot more serious."
When asked his favorite part of competitive swimming, Barrett's answer is quick, but unexpected.
"I like swimming in the dark," he said. "In the morning when we practice (at the Long Center in Clearwater), you get to swim when there's no light."
Rae-Lynn, a rising seventh-grader at Powell Middle, is devoted to swimming, with a scholarship to the University of Florida and the Olympics on her wish list. The dream scenario would have her in a Tampa Bay Olympiad in 2012.
The siblings have remained supportive of each other. Jealousy has not affected the relationship.
"I think because Barrett does so many other things it helps," Holly said. "He's good at a lot of things _ not great at any _ but he knows what a great swimmer she is.
"Right now, they just egg each other on," their mother said. "It's more of a thrill for each other."
But little brothers, being little brothers, are made to pester older sisters.
"He gets on my nerves sometimes," Rae-Lynn said. "He forgets stuff and I have to pick it up, brother stuff, but he's OK."
Crucial, because they spend a lot of time together.
Seeking better training and tougher competition for their kids, Holly and her husband, Doug, a mortgage investor, pulled them out of the Tigersharks program at the Hernando Family YMCA and joined Clearwater Aquatics.
"(Tigersharks) was fun, but I wanted to take it to another level," Rae-Lynn said. "I'm doing the same workouts, but I've dropped some times and got a lot more yardage."
So has the family vehicle _ on those daily hour-long early morning drives to make 5:30 practice.
"First, we did a camp down there in June," said Holly, one of the Suncoast Parkway's biggest fans. "After talking to the staff and deciding we could do it, we thought it was best for the kids."
Clearwater Aquatics coach Rich Rogers did not return calls to the Times.
The Sheffield's $162 per-month investment will pay off, Holly said.
It could start with top-four finishes in Friday's finals, which are worth "all-star" selections and an enhanced profile within the regional swimming matrix. All of which might eventually lead to the fulfillment of two far-off dreams for Rae-Lynn.
And perhaps a small bit of relief that she wasn't able to hit or kick a ball when she was 8.
Staff writer Brant James can be reached at (800) 333-7505, ext. 1430. Send e-mail to brantsptimes.com.
LONG COURSE JUNIOR OLYMPIC CHAMPIONSHIPS (Events measured in meters)
WHEN/WHERE: Today-Sunday. Selby Aquatic Center, 8301 Potter Park Drive, Sarasota.
WHO: RAE-LYNN SHEFFIELD _ Through July 5, she had the best time in the state in the 50-meter backstroke (33.73) and was third-best in the 50 breaststroke (38.91), sixth in the 50 freestyle (29:64), sixth in the 100 backstroke (1:15.12), sixth in the 200 individual medley (2:43.02) and ninth in the 100 free (1:05.86). BARRETT SHEFFIELD _ Through July 5, he had the seventh-best time in the state in the 50 breast (44.73) and was eighth-best in the 100 breast (1:40.32).
_ BRANT JAMES