If all follows the script this spring, the Southern Section Division II girls' swimming championships will serve as an encore for Katie Nelson.
Nelson, a senior at Rolling Hills Estates Peninsula, envisions stepping onto the starting blocks May 17 at Belmont Plaza in Long Beach, absorbing the energy from the crowd and releasing it with every stroke.
She pictures her winning time flashing onto the scoreboard, in more than one event, illuminating the ideal end to her high school career.
Before she can execute the dream exit, Nelson will try to produce a lifetime best at the YMCA National Short Course Championships in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Nelson is hoping to break her year-old YMCA national record of 9 minutes 55.64 seconds in the 1,000-yard freestyle and take aim at the 1,650 freestyle mark as well.
"I think I'll do better this year," said Nelson, who committed to UCLA in November. "It's my last year, it's my biggest meet and the one I get most prepared for."
Nelson is a four-time national champion for the San Pedro Peninsula YMCA. She has been competing for the team since she was 9 and has been coached by Dan Halladay since she was 12.
Nelson is the only YMCA national record holder, male or female, living west of the Mississippi River. Unlike Southern California, most club teams on the East Coast are affiliated with the YMCA. The San Pedro Peninsula team is one of the few from the West Coast that travels to the national championships.
Though Nelson has the talent to compete for one of the many elite club teams in the region, she has remained faithful to her YMCA team because of its spiritual origins and the camaraderie she developed with Halladay and her teammates, including lifelong friend Annalisa Lubinski.
At the YMCA nationals last year, Nelson almost single-handily lifted her eight-member team into eighth place. Afterward, they were voted most spirited during the six-day meet, beating out teams with five times as many members.
Halladay said swimming is not all about fun and games for Nelson. Her work ethic is the main reason for her success.
"She's dedicated," Halladay said. "She's one of those kids, if she missed a half-hour of practice, she would ask if she could make it up on a Sunday."
Because Nelson puts such focus on the YMCA national championships each year, she hasn't been able to peak for the section finals a few weeks later. Nelson said distance competition, particularly in the 1,650 freestyle, can take a lot out of a swimmer.
"I can only swim the mile maybe three times a year or I'll get really sick of it," she said. "When you're going all out for 66 laps, you're head gets all red and feels like it's going to explode. I'm usually sore for a week afterward."
Nelson rebounded last season to finish second in the 100 and 200 freestyles at the Division II section finals. As a sophomore, she finished third in both the 200 and 500 freestyles.
In last season's 100 freestyle, she finished behind Riverside Poly's Jeri Moss with a time of 52.58, which was the sixth-fastest among all divisions. In the 200 freestyle, her time of 1:51.73 was eighth-fastest overall and second in her division behind Jane Imagane of Fullerton Troy. Moss has graduated and swims for Auburn. Imagane is a senior.
Nelson said she is leaning toward competing in the 200 and 500 freestyles at the section finals this spring.
A longer gap between the YMCA national championships and the section finals this season will give her added time to rest.
"She wants those titles," Halladay said.