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Miami-Dade swimmers seek to reverse failures in state finals of 2011

With packed stands overlooking the Olympic-sized swimming pool, Palmetto and Lake Brantley battled to the wire in the final of the girls’ 200 medley relay.

The competitors, swimming stroke for stroke, neared the wall with their heads barely breaking the surface of the water. In the final strokes, Lake Brantley narrowly edged Palmetto, touching the wall in 1:48.58, 13-tenths of a second ahead of the Panthers.

That race would be the closest anyone from Miami-Dade would come to winning a medal at the 2011 Class 3A swimming finals. It was the first time since 2007 any swimmer — male of female — failed to win a Class 3A state title.

Dade has fared well the past few seasons in Class 3A. Palmetto won back-to-back boys’ team titles in 2009 and 2010. Individually, a number of swimmers won state titles in 2009, including Ferguson’s Ana Anaya, Columbus’ Douglas Ramos, Palmetto’s Michael Saco and Reagan’s Juan Sequera.

Overall, last season was a down year for Miami swimmers. Diguan Pigot, of Class 1A member Doral, was the only athlete to win a state title, individual or team.

In Class 2A, Belen — which had won the previous five boys’ team titles — placed fourth in the meet after graduating a number of swimmers. Julian Ballestas was the only Wolverine to reach the podium, finishing second in the 200 free.

“We have to step up our relays,” Ballestas said. “I have to win both of my events for us to get first as a team at states.”

The Wolverines have a solid but young crop of swimmers who could become a threat by the time the state meet rolls around in November.

Ballestas, with his club Metro Aquatic, steadily trained through the summer, even spending more then a week of altitude training in New Mexico.

“We were 7,000 feet up,” he said. “It helps us start the season better.”

Including Ballestas, several Dade swimmers are expected to fare better in the state meet than last season.

Reagan’s Isabella Paez is looking to contend in the 100 fly and the 500 free. Paez spent a large part of her summer preparing and competing at the highest levels of swimming in the country. Paez had a career-best time in 200 fly at the U.S. Junior national meet in Omaha, Neb. The junior advanced to the U.S. Olympic trials but failed to qualify for the London Games.

“I had never been to a meet that big. I was so nervous,” she said. “It’s a completely different world from what I am used to.”

Palmetto’s Sam Smiddy also competed at the Olympic trials in the 200 IM and 400 IM. Smiddy, who swims in several relays, is an integral part of the Panthers team.

“Smiddy is doing great in the leadership role,” Palmetto coach David Booher said.

Booher expects Smiddy to improve on his fourth-place finish at states in the 200 IM last season. The coach is confident that the Panthers could have a couple of swimmers win individual titles this season but is more reserved about the chances of his squad winning a team title.

“Last year was the chance for our girls. We went from 16th place a few years ago to sixth to third place,” he said. “Hopefully, the boys have a chance to improve.”

Palmetto senior Daniela Johnson, who was on the losing 200 medley relay last season, is using defeat as motivation. Johnson came close to winning her first state title in the 100 free last season, placing third.

“The pressure and the nerves got to me. I was a little tighter than usual,” she said. “Those things get me excited. It motivated me, but it was hard.”

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