WHAT: UIL Class 4A Swimming & Diving State Meet
WHERE: Jamail Texas Swim Center, Austin
WHEN: 4:30 p.m. Friday diving and swimming prelims; 3:30 p.m. Saturday diving and swimming finals
Kari Wilkins put in a lot of extra work to extend her season two weeks.
Wilkins will be competing at the UIL Class 4A Swimming & Diving State Meet for the first time when she travels to the Jamail Texas Swim Center in Austin.
The El Campo junior came close to qualifying for the state meet as a freshman and sophomore, and she was determined not to end the year at the regional meet for the third straight time.
"I am swimming twice a day," Wilkins said. "I'm getting a lot of hours in the pool, and I also have a good balance between school, studies and friends. I'm more experienced on how I need to swim, study and balance everything out."
Wilkins will compete in the 100-yard freestyle and 100-yard breaststroke.
She'll be joined by Victoria West diver Mallory Draper, a junior, who will be making her third straight appearance at the state meet.
Wilkins and Draper not only share the desire to succeed, they also have a facility to practice in, which has been vital to their success.
Wilkins began swimming competitively at age 7 for the Red Wave summer league team in El Campo.
The workouts were held at the American Legion pool, an outdoor facility that no longer exists.
Draper started diving her freshman year at the urging of Josh Bednorz, a fellow gymnast.
Bednorz would have to travel because there was no diving board at the Victoria YMCA pool where the swimming teams practiced.
Wilkins got a boost when the El Campo Aquatic Center opened in 2005.
She swam summer league in the pool and has practiced at the facility since her freshman year.
"If I didn't have this pool, I'd probably be driving to Lake Jackson or Sugar Land," she said. "I don't know where our team would practice or if we even would have a team. It costs so much money to transport kids."
Draper still travels to San Antonio and Corpus Christi to work with her individual coaches, but she's thankful for the Victoria Aquatics Center, which opened in 2010.
"It's great. This pool is only 20 minutes from my home," Draper said. "I cannot imagine how Josh did it for so long without a pool, how he kept his mind into doing it for so long."
Wilkins' early-morning treks to the pool in El Campo allowed her to improve from a pair of third-place finishes at the regional meet the last two years.
"I had to ask myself do I want to train every day, do I want to eat healthy and get enough sleep," she said, "or do I want to do what all my other friends are doing and have fun every night."
Wilkins' hard work paid off in a pair of first-place finishes at the regional meet. She goes into the state meet seeded seventh in the 100-yard breastroke (1:06.69) and 10th in the 100-yard freestyle (53.60).
"The breaststroke is my favorite," Wilkins said. "I tell coach (Richard) Nava I would swim breaststroke every day in practice and swim it for all the sets. I would never get tired of it because I just love swimming it."
Draper won the one-meter diving competition (409.90) at the regional meet and goes in as the fifth seed. She placed eighth at state as a freshman and was seventh last year.
"I was actually just watching videos of me diving freshman year, and it's completely different," she said. "I'm so much closer to the board, which is a good thing, and I go in better into the water, and my technique has really improved."
Wilkins goes into Friday's preliminaries hoping to make the top eight in breaststroke, which would put her in Saturday's championship final.
"I've swam at UT once or twice and gone to two camps there," she said. "I know what the pool is like. I don't swim until 4:30 in the afternoon, so I'm going to try to stay calm both days in the morning. I want to get a good breakfast, just get to the pool and stay calm. After I get to the pool and warm up, I'm usually much more comfortable there."
Draper will perform eight dives Friday and three Saturday. She plans to do the same dives she did at the district and regional meets.
"The atmosphere is really tense," she said. "There's some people who go up there really hoping to change their dives. My coach in San Antonio (Tommy Law) told me just go in there with a free-spirited attitude. All your hard work is done, and you're just here to compete in your last meet."
Mike Forman is a sports writer for the Victoria Advocate. Contact him at 361-580-6588 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment on this column at VictoriaAdvocate.com.