Last season, the Lady Bulldogs finished second overall, something that left the returning swimmers — a handful with local ties — with a bitter taste, wanting to lead the team to a championship for the first time since 2005.
“Coming in second, obviously, that made us want to be champions,” said sophomore Jessica Graber, a former Walton standout. “(This) year, we have to work even harder if we want to win. I don’t think we were very disappointed, because everyone tried their hardest. There’s not much to be disappointed about. It’s kind of bittersweet, I guess.
“Last year, we were so close to winning. That Georgia team (last year) was competitive. We’ll race each other in practices all the time. We want to put that to good use this year and come out with a ring.”
Though Graber was just an alternate on last year’s Georgia roster, former Pope standout Kelsey Gaid was one of last year’s team members in the national championships.
“I think this year has been a lot different than every other year,” she said. “Everyone is really excited, the whole team. I think everyone is ready to have more fun racing than we have in years past. I think we will have a good outcome if everyone keeps the same positive outcome.
“We have a lot of new freshmen, and that has boosted our team a lot and brought everyone closer together. It’s helped us race a lot better.”
Over the past two years, Georgia’s women’s swimming team has seen an influx of talent from Cobb County.
Although Graber was only an alternate on last year’s team, she now a key piece of this year’s squad, swimming the 50-yard freestyle, 100 freestyle and 200 freestyle relay.
Much like Graber, the other 15 members of the team headed to Auburn to compete for the national title will be young. The Lady Bulldogs are sending just six upperclassmen, including Gaid, and seven freshmen, including Lassiter product Shannon O’Malley.
For Graber, getting the chance to compete in a national championship and to swim at Georgia has deeper meanings. It’s the culmination of sacrifices made on her part, and by her family as a whole in the past.
“I lived in Columbus, and I swam there,” she said. “I moved to Marietta for swimming. I’m so grateful for my parents for making that step because I had been in Columbus since I was in kindergarten. My mom got an apartment in Marietta, while my dad worked in Columbus. The team in Columbus wasn’t competitive, so I was basically swimming by myself.
“I spent my last two years of high school (at Walton). Graduated and literally, it was all just for me and my swimming capabilities.”
Now, Graber, like many of her other teammates, is trying to not only compete for a shot at the U.S. Olympic Trials, but also help Georgia win a national championship — the culmination of the sacrifices she and her mother made.
“I’ve been swimming forever, and swimming is something that you have to keep growing with,” she said. “It gets harder and harder each year, but the dedication you have for it keeps growing. To get to the next level, you have to keep practicing hard for it.
“I didn’t want those two years that my mom basically stopped her life in Columbus, being away from my dad — I didn’t any of that to go to waste.”
Meanwhile, all O’Malley has done is qualify for the national championships as a freshman. She will be swimming in the 100 breaststroke, 200 breaststroke and 200 individual medley.
“It was a really big surprise for me,” O’Malley said of making the cut. “I wasn’t expecting it. I was aiming for it, but knew it would be a difficult task for me. When I found out that I was going, it was really exciting — kind of overwhelming — but exciting at the same time.”
O’Malley qualified for the national championships by way of the Bulldog Last Chance meet held in Athens, as a way for any swimmers close to qualifying for the national championships to meet those times.
“It was prelim-final meet,” she said. “We swam in the morning, then came back and swam at night. Coach (Jack Bauerle) told me that I would have to swim my hardest to make it to the NCAA finals.”
And so she did. And so she qualified.
Now, O’Malley and many of her young teammates are going to experience a national championship setting.
“Going into the NCAAs, knowing we have a chance to be No. 1, I believe, is one of the No. 1 greatest accomplishments,” Gaid said. “ A lot of people don’t get that chance. For us to have that chance to win, it’s an amazing opportunity.”