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Swim for success: Mississippi dives into the world of competitive swimming.

For the competitive swimmer, the seconds before total submersion are some of the most important. Hearts race, muscles tense and relax in an ebb-and-flow like the swimming pool below. These few seconds give the swimmers just enough time to remember the basics: lead-foot first, push off, and prepare for impact. In a high-stakes swim meet like the Southern Zone Age Group Championship (SZAGC), seconds also determine who wins a regional championship.

In August, the Shockwave Aquatics Swim Team in Tupelo will host this year's SZAGC at the Tupelo Aquatic Center. The 43,000-square-foot center and its home team are not new hosts to a meet of this scale, as this is the second time they have hosted the meet in five years. At the 2015 competition, the Tupelo Aquatic Center hosted hundreds of swimmers from all across the southern region in attendance.

The SZAGC is a part of USA Swimming's vast network of competitive swimming competitions. USA Swimming divides the country into four zones: central, southern, eastern, and western. Each zone is divided into local swim committees (LSC). The Mississippi LSC is just one of 15 in the southern region. Barbara Aguirre, the director of the 2017 SZAGC and assistant coach for the Shockwaves, anticipates that 14 of these LSCs will bring swimmers to Tupelo.

"The importance of this meet is that the LSCs get to bring their outstanding age-group athletes and compete as an All-Star team," Aguirre says.

This means that the swimmers in the SZAGC are the best of the best young swimmers from the southern region. Those who do well in this competition may qualify to attend larger national meets hosted by USA swimming, such as the Speedo Junior Nationals Competition. Aguirre says that the last time the Shockwaves hosted this meet, swimmers met 58 Speedo Junior Nationals time standards.

The SZAGC is just one example of how swimming is growing in popularity across the state. There are 11 swimming clubs that have been around for years, and many of these swimmers have gone on to swim on college teams and at national competitions. Tupelo's hosting of the SZAGC acknowledges that Mississippi Swimming is a top participant in USA Swimming.

Blaise Vera, a recent graduate of Clinton High School, is making waves nationally and secured a spot at the Olympic swimming trials in 2016 while a part of the Makos swim team in Jackson.

When it comes to Mississippi swimming competitions, Vera says he feels more at ease because he is competing with his friends. However, the friendly competition does not make his in-state rivals easier to beat. The rise in competitive swimmers across the state means that over the next few years, more swimmers like Vera will participate in national competitions.

"There is definitely a rise in talent throughout Mississippi," Vera says, "There have been a few great swimmers to come from Mississippi, and I think there will be more in the future."

Jack Smithson, who competed in Tupelo in 2015, shares Vera's view of his competition.

"I would say that SZAGC is one of the most competitive age group swim meets in the whole country," Smithson says.

While the Tupelo Aquatic Center regularly hosts swim meets, the regional championship draws the largest crowds. According to Tupelo Aquatic Center Director Amy Kennedy, over 5,700 swimmers have gathered in Tupelo for these meets since the center opened in 2014. From the 2015 SZAGC, Aguirre estimates Tupelo saw an economic contribution of $800,000. The 2017 competition could bring in just as much business to the city.

With a high-caliber group of competitors coming into the state, it is no wonder the Tupelo Aquatic Center makes a bid to host this event every year. The center hosts more than 500 competitors and their coaches, 150 volunteers, and hundreds of other family members and friends. Most importantly, the event provides swimmers in Mississippi and around the country the chance to display their training and skills and to become champions in a matter of seconds.

Caption: ABOVE AND RIGHT: The Tupelo Aquatic Center will host the SZAGC August 1-5. The center is a state-of-the-art facility designed by JBHM Architects. Clinton High School graduate Blaise Vera could be Mississippi's first Olympic swimmer. Vera will compete in the World Championship Trials in Indianapolis in August before heading to the University of Pittsburgh.

Caption: ABOVE: Henry Carter of Jackson currently competes for PEAQ. "He would like to swim for the University of Alabama one day/' shares his mom, Adrienne.
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Title Annotation:TRAVEL & ADVENTURE: Noteworthy
Author:Hydrick, Morgan
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Geographic Code:1U6MS
Date:Jul 1, 2017
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