The atmosphere in the Rock Hill Aquatics Center was intense Saturday during the 400-yard freestyle relay of the 2008 Region 3-AAAA Swimming Championships - coaches paced the pool deck, teammates pounded the walls to provide inspiration and fans screamed for their favorite swimmer in the last event of the day.
Nation Ford's following must have been a little louder than its opponents. The Falcons took the boys and girls races and titles by a wide margin. The boys team scored 380 points, and Northwestern, its nearest opponent, trailed by more than 100 points with 233.5. The Lady Falcons finished with a smaller margin of victory, but still won handily with 285 points while second-place Fort Mill scored 250 points. The Fort Mill boys team and Northwestern girls team rounded out the five-team field's top three.
Nation Ford placed in every swim and won first place in 16 of the 22 events. The Falcons fielded three national competitors in the boys 400 free relay, making it clear they were swimming at a different level than the competition with a win margin of more than 19 seconds. Nation Ford coach Adam Rainey said he was proud of his team, and singled out impressive performers.
"Seth Greene in particular," Rainey said. "He'd really been struggling with his breaststroke, but today he definitely came down (on his time). Anna Kimbrell came down on her time, Jordan Berry and the Ashcrafts: Jordan, Evan and Alexa definitely held our team together well today."
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Nation Ford senior Justin Ashcraft has been a year-round swimmer since he was 5, and so have his brother and sister, Evan (sophomore), and Alexa (freshman). The Ashcrafts performed well in their respective races, collectively taking three titles on the day while also performing well in the relays. Alexa said their experience is a major asset.
"Everything has been going well because we have been around swimming so much," Alexa said. "After that much time, you just know what to do."
The three also compete at the national level. Justin said his 12 years of swimming help him perform at a high level in high school, but also allow him to give tips to teammates.
"Being 17, that gives you over 10 years of experience," Justin said. "Each year, you get faster, you get bigger and gain more experience and talent that you can share that and rub that off on other people. Some of the high school swimmers aren't as experienced, so you can help them with their stroke, their dive, their swim and create a stronger team."
Although Nation Ford pulled away from the competition, the Northwestern boys team and Fort Mill girls team also put on strong performances.
The Lady Yellow Jackets nearly beat the Lady Falcons, but lost the 400 free relay. The Trojans also performed admirably, placing in the top-three finishers on seven occasions, which included a win by first-year swimmer Gage Fast, who placed first in the boys 50-yard freestyle. The regional win was the biggest in the junior's young career, and he said he was nervous going into the swim.
"It was intimidating," Gage said, "especially with all these big guys that have been swimming for eight years. I was extremely pleased with the win, but I think my team's more excited than I am, especially (Northwestern coach Susan Snyder)."
Many of Saturday's competitors will perform at the AAAA State Swimming Championships that will be staged at 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 11, at the Rock Hill Aquatics Center. Swimmers moved on based on their times, which must be under a certain rate in each race.