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West Orange Times & Observer Thursday, Mar. 31, 2022 3 months ago

SouthWest Stars Swim Team members make a splash

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Four middle school girls from the local club swim team recently took first place in all four relays at the Florida Age Group Championships.
by: Annabelle Sikes Staff Writer

The four members of the SouthWest Stars Swim Team’s 11- and 12-year-old girls relay made a splash in history for Winter Garden-based SouthWest Aquatics Center as they swept all four relays at the Florida Age Group Championships earlier this month. 

Not only did the girls dominate their relays, but they also were the only relay team to take first place from the team. 

Coaches Kristen Foley and JT Land helped to lead the girls to victory. 

“I am so proud of these girls — not just for winning all four relays but for their positive energy and attitudes over the course of this meet,” Foley said. “These girls are the future of our team, and right now, the future looks very bright.”

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Mariana Landim, Isabella Taliaferro, Megan Speidel and Reese Robinson are the smiling faces behind the incredible turn of events. 

The relays kicked off with the 200 IM. The girls were seated fourth, so they said they were aiming for third. 

That’s when their collective thought process changed. 

“We heard a team cheering close to us before the event, saying, ‘Who’s gonna win? We’re gonna win!’” Speidel said. “And it just motivated us to want to win and swim harder.”

And so they did. 

All four girls earned best times, going a little under or over 30 seconds, for a time of under two minutes, just barely out-touching the other teams.

“We had crazy energy; we were all just screaming for each other, because we all wanted each other to do really good,” Taliaferro said. 

Landim said she thought the relay was the perfect recipe for success.

“I felt like it was a strong relay, because all of us were in our strokes that we are really good at and that we like, and we are all really close so we push each other to be better,” she said. 

In the second relay, the 200 freestyle, the event was not as close, with the girls winning by a couple of seconds.

After the third relay, the 400 IM, the coaches decided it was time for a pep talk. 

“After our third relay win, one of our coaches said, ‘Three relays is epic, but four would be legendary,’” Taliaferro said. “And that’s what really kicked in, because on our last relay, we were like, ‘OK, we got this. Let’s go.’”

The girls were exhausted, saying they all had recently finished individual events but knowing they were going into the last one, the 400 freestyle, gave them the energy to push through. 

“All of us seem to go faster when we are tired,” Taliaferro said. “Not because we save up our energy but because our mind set changes as we reach the end.”

When they finished first for the fourth consecutive relay, the girls said all they could hear was the roar of the crowd with their entire team and coaches cheering.

“It was so unreal,” Taliaferro said. 

FLORIDA AGE GROUP CHAMPIONSHIPS
The meet in Jacksonville consisted of four days of swimming prelims and finals. The girls also swam individual races in addition to their relays, totaling to six or eight events.

“I feel like to just be there at such a high-level championship is just incredible,” Landim said. 

Although the girls said the experience was exhausting, it was also something they loved and would never forget. For some, it was their first time at the meet. 

“I thought going to FLAGS was a huge accomplishment, and I didn’t think I would go, much less, place so high, so I’m very happy about that,” Robinson said.

As the newest and youngest member of the group, Robinson said she wants to get better and improve. 

“The girls really push me to always do my best,” she said. 

Speidel, who has only been swimming for two years, said she was able to meet a lot of new people their age who swam, and saw familiar faces, as well. She said the highlight of her individual swims was beating a familiar opponent in breaststroke.

SOUTHWEST STARS
The SouthWest Stars program is a club swim team at the SouthWest Aquatics Center. 

The year-round competitive team offers professional coaching and technical instruction for swimmers of all ages and abilities, with the club team being divided into groups by both age and skill set. 

The girls said they practice two hours a day, six days a week, and sometimes they have dry-land training for strength and conditioning, too. This makes the team a big commitment for not only the swimmers, but for their families, as well. 

“All of our coaches are really nice, so I think that helps us keep going every day — just knowing that they’re there to make us as good as we can be,” Taliaferro said. 

The girls’ parents agreed, saying the coaches are “amazing.”

“They’re not only knowledgeable in the swimming world, but they’re very involved with the kids on a personal level,” Kara Robinson said. “They know everything about strengths, weaknesses, family, school. They just really care.” 

The Robinson family was one of the original families of the only 12 kids who were part of the team when it started more than 20 years ago.

“Their goal as a team is not so much creating Olympians, but creating well-rounded young adults who are going to enjoy swimming for the rest of their lives,” she explained of her experience with her children.

Daniella Taliaferro agreed. 

“Swimming can be very individualized, but they make it feel like a team effort,” she said.

As far as goals, all four girls expressed interest in continuing swimming by attending colleges such as the University of Florida, known for training notable athletes including Caleb Dressel and Ryan Lochte. 

The young girls said they also see the Olympic trials and the Olympics in their future. 

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Annabelle Sikes is a staff writer at the West Orange Times & Observer, Southwest Orange Observer and OrangeObserver.com. She graduated in May 2021 from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a minor in sociology.  Her past...

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