As athletes improve they compete in their Local Swimming Committee age group championships, which feature the best swimmers in the athlete's state or geographic area. Beyond the LSC age-group championship are the Zone Championships. Theses pit the top swimmers from the Eastern, Western, Central, and Southern zones against each other.
"Talent will only take you to age 12 in this sport, then you have to rely on hard work and having correct techniques," says Ptasnik, who swam at the University of Iowa. "Only focused, goal-oriented individuals who are full of desire will be successful."
Dive Right In
Children who have the same focus can also become talented divers, says New York University diving coach Scott Donie, who also coaches young athletes through USA Diving and was a teaching assistant with first-grade students from 1993 through 1996. Those who have gymnastics, dance, or acrobatics experience often excel in diving.
USA Diving, Inc., the sport's national governing body, is responsible for training, selecting, and preparing teams to represent the United States at the Olympic Games, World Championships, and FINA World Diving Cup. It also conducts programs for junior divers who are under age 18 at more than 300 clubs nationally. In addition to the physical benefits of diving, the sport attracts many wonderful, passionate people that create a family environment, Donie says. Children also learn to overcome their fear of heights or the water and increase their confidence by performing in high-pressure competitions. For children who excel, many college scholarships are available.
There is, of course, the potential for many injuries in both swimming and diving. Smacking the water in a belly flop or hitting the diving board, when the athlete's hands or feet graze the board, are common in diving. Stress injuries can affect the wrists, shoulders, or back, too. Depending on which strokes swimmers compete with, they are prone to elbow, shoulder, knee, and back injuries. Donie, who won a silver medal in 10-meter diving at the 1992 Olympics, and Wineski both encourage others to take up swimming, in spite of injury risk and other hurdles.
"If our swimmers don't leave here as the next Michael Phelps or Amanda Beard, that's perfectly okay," Wineski says. "We hope that they'll have gained not just individual leadership skills, but also the personal enrichment that comes from being part of a team."
Also see: When to Start Your Child in Swim Lessons