A year and a half ago, a group of Aiken-Augusta Swim League (ASL) athletes took a trip to Colorado Springs, Colo., to train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.
On Thursday, Columbia County swimmers Katherine Huff and Gabe Eichel, both 16, will go from visitor status to featured athletes during the four-day USA Swimming National Select Camp.
"It'll be hard and really intense training, but I think we'll come back knowing a lot of new things," said Eichel, a junior at Augusta Prep. "It'll be really beneficial."
Eichel and Huff, a junior at Lakeside, were two of 60 swimmers nationwide -- 30 males and 30 females -- ages 18 and younger selected to attend the camp.
Swimmers with one of the top two times in each of 13 events were selected, while four additional swimmers were selected based on overall points.
ASL has had one athlete swim internationally with the 18-under U.S. National Team, coach Adam Byars said. However, Eichel and Huff are the organization's first two to attend the Select Camp.
"They're definitely a couple of the top 16-and-under swimmers in the country," said Byars, who will be joining the pair on the trip. "It's pretty tough to get there."
In elite swimming, the difference between first and second can be a matter of hundredths of a second. The U.S. Olympic Training Center offers technology designed to shave off precious fractions of a second.
In addition to being subjected to technological aids in the pool, such as a camera that runs along a track and films swimmers in real time, Select Camp athletes will be schooled in classroom sessions on elements of ideal training methods and proper diet.
The setting will be a far cry from Huff's humble beginnings in the sport. She said she got her start after complaining to her mother about the swim team taking up too much of the neighborhood pool during the summer.
Instead of fighting their presence, Huff joined them. Eventually, she started swimming year-round.
"I wasn't ever very good at it until middle school," said Huff, who swims the 50-, 100- and 200-yard freestyle and the 100- and 200-yard fly. "In seventh grade, I started to get better."
Eichel specializes in the breaststroke, specifically the 100- and 200-yard race. He also swims the 200- and 400-yard individual medley.
Like Huff, he started in the sport by competing with his community squad while living in Maryland.
Eichel had started swimming year-round when he was 11 or 12. After his family moved to Columbia County when he was in seventh grade, he joined the local club team.
"ASL's really been the key point of me swimming," Eichel said. "School swimming is really just a supplement to club swimming. ... If you want to get serious, you come to ASL because we train every day."
Training roughly 25 hours a week during the summer and about 18 hours a week during the school year has helped Huff and Eichel make the Select Camp cut and draw the interest of college programs. Neither has made a decision regarding a college destination.
The pinnacle of the sport is reaching the Olympic Games. It's something Eichel has an eye on after qualifying for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb.
"It's something you think about," he said, "someday to be there at the Olympics."
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