For two years, Michelle Nielson competed in the background for the Granada Hills High girls' swimming team.
She was an important contributor for the Highlanders, helping set City Section records in the 200-yard medley relay in each of her first two seasons, but she was overshadowed by teammates.
This year appeared to be more of the same. Jennifer Parmenter, one of the nation's top high school swimmers, was expected to be Granada Hills' new star after transferring from L.A. Baptist.
Parmenter did well, but Nielson did better on her way to being selected The Times' regional girls' swimmer of the year.
Nielson, a junior, set City Section records in the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke in the section preliminaries. Her times of 58.42 seconds in the butterfly and 58.00 in the backstroke broke marks set last year by Sangeeta Puri, of Palisades, who competed for India in the 1996 Olympics. Nielson's times were the fastest among girls' swimmers in the region this year.
She had plenty of motivation. She finished second to Puri in both events in the 1997 section finals.
"I knew Sangeeta pretty well and I knew she was great swimmer," Nielson said. "It made things a little bit easier this year."
Nielson expected better times in the finals the following week, but she was slowed by illness.
After missing school early in the week because of the flu, Nielson struggled--by her standards. She won the 100 butterfly in 59.22 and the 100 backstroke in 58.91 and swam on two winning relay teams. She was selected the girls' swimmer of the meet, and Granada Hills cruised to its fourth consecutive team title.
Nielson fell short of qualifying for the U.S. championships, but she will get another chance at the Junior National West region meet in San Jose in July.
"I'm not that far off," Nielson said. "If I hadn't gotten sick, maybe I'd have [a qualifying time] by now. But I know I can do better."
The rest of The Times' all-region team:
* Nicole Beck, Buena, Sr.--Recovered from injuries suffered in car accident to finish second in Division I 100 backstroke. Signed with UCLA.
* Heather Boylan, Saugus, Sr.--Had five individual titles and two seconds in career at Division II finals. Signed with USC.
* Nicole Craft, Ventura, Sr.--Helped Ventura to first Channel League title. Had region's fastest time in 200 individual medley.
* Amy Jones, Cleveland, Fr.--Set City Section records in 50 and 100 freestyle in preliminaries. Won both events in finals.
* Jennifer Parmenter, Granada Hills, Jr.--Won 200 freestyle and 100 breaststroke--two of her weaker events--at City Section finals in helping Highlanders to fourth consecutive title.
* Kasey Reinhard, Crescenta Valley, So.--Won the Southern Section Division II diving title with 493.95 points.
* Jana Richardson, Ventura, Fr.--Fastest qualifier in 200 freestyle in Division I finals and finished tied for second. Placed fourth in 100 freestyle.