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Until the coronavirus pandemic ended competitive sports more than three months ago, June 24 was to be the day Baylor School rising senior Ellie Waldrep fulfilled a lifelong dream — competing in the United States Olympic Team Trials for swimming.

Having qualified for the trials in both the 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke, Waldrep couldn't wait to reach the venue in Omaha, Nebraska.

"It's the ultimate goal of any swimmer," she said. "The trials, then the Olympics. Now I'll have to wait until next summer."

In truth, every youth swimmer in the Chattanooga area must now probably wait until 2021 to reenter the water for competition, be it on the high school level or through the Chattanooga Area Swim League, where club teams compete in the summer.

But however long the forced sabbatical, the pause is unlikely to dent this area's reputation as one of the nation's finest producers of elite-level swimmers for a population its size.

For proof, merely look at this past winter's high school results. The Baylor girls won the state title outright, even though swimming is not a TSSAA-sanctioned sport despite at least 162 Tennessee high schools fielding teams. Baylor and McCallie tied as boys' state champs. South of the border in Georgia, Dalton's boys won their second Georgia High School Association-sanctioned state title in three years. The Catamounts were second in 2019.

"There was a time between 2004 and 2014 where graduates of Tennessee high schools led all states in freshman scoring at the NCAA championships," said McCallie coach Stan Corcoran, whose Blue Tornado have won nine state titles in 28 years, including the shared title with Baylor in February. "A lot of great swimmers have come from this area."

One of those is clearly Waldrep, who set independent school national records this past November in the 100 backstroke and 200 individual medley, and will head to Auburn for the 2021-22 school year.

Another is McCallie's Will Jackson, who was named male swimmer of the state meet after claiming four firsts — 200 and 500 free and 200 and 400 free relay — and will swim for Tennessee in the 2020-21 school year.

Unlike most of the area's swimmers, Jackson began competing in the sport in the Washington, D.C., area, where he was a member of the same Nation's Capital Swim Club for which Olympic great Katie Ledecky once swam.

Moving to Chattanooga midway through the eighth grade, Jackson had given up the sport for basketball when John Shulman, McCallie's varsity basketball coach at the time, pulled him aside one day to talk about his athletic future.

"I think I'd been watching the Olympics or something and noticing how tall and lean the swimmers were, much like Will," recalled Shulman, who's now the head coach at Alabama-Huntsville.

"I told him, 'You look like those guys. You can be a good basketball player, but you look like an elite swimmer.' Besides, we about killed him his freshman year. He was swimming thousands of yards before school every morning, then practicing with us every afternoon. He just wanted to try and please everybody."

Now 6-foot-5, Jackson still sometimes sounds as if basketball remains his first love.

"The NCAA tournament has always been my favorite time of the year," he said. "I'm a big Virginia fan."

Pointing to the cancellation of the 2020 tournament, he said of the 2019 national champion Cavaliers, "They're still the reigning champs."

Yet thanks to Shulman, he also began to understand that his best chance for major collegiate success was in the pool. He also believes that Scenic City swimming can hold its own with anyone.

"It has exceeded my expectations," Jackson said. "CASL is a great summer league. Our times are very competitive nationally."

Those times are so competitive, if not superior, that Baylor has been crowned national champion by Swimming World seven times based on its best swimmers' best times, though no actual meet is held.

"So many kids are taught to swim at a young age," said longtime Baylor coach Dan Flack. "The whole family can do it. And it's fun in the summer. You can go to Wendy's after a meet, get a Frosty. It's also a tremendous give-back sport. The older swimmers have so much influence on the younger ones."

To that point, Waldrep reflected on her summers with the Stuart Heights swim club.

"We have a Sharks-Minnows program where the older kids mentor the younger ones," she said. "I'm a people person. I love reaching out and encouraging them."

Ellie Taliaferro, a GPS junior who could also reach next year's Olympic trials, agrees.

"One thing I've missed most because of the coronavirus is helping with the younger ones," she said. "Just cheering them on, writing (what events they're in) on their backs. I've been swimming since I was 7, and I really miss it this summer."

Like Waldrep, Dalton High School senior Henry Bethel will be headed to Auburn a year from now after the 200 IM and 100 breaststroke at this past winter's state meet.

Asked about the value of competition in this neck of the woods, he proudly pointed to the Catamounts' state titles and said, "We're the only high school in Georgia since 1990 to win a state title outside of the Atlanta schools."

Nor does such success throughout the Chattanooga area figure to stall anytime soon.

"It's definitely on the up-and-up," Jackson said. "Especially the younger kids, the age-group swimmers. Our future is bright."

All they need is for COVID-19 to vanish so that they can jump back in the pool.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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