The buzzer sounds and the flash goes off and Mikaila Gaffey is gone. Connetquot's standout swimmer is a blur as she leaps off the starting block, and if she hasn't immediately outdistanced her competition, just wait until she makes that first turn.
The best swimmers are like torpedoes after their turn, knifing through the water under the surface where they can go the fastest, for the longest.
And Gaffey is one of the best.
This sequence could describe the start to any 200-yard freestyle relay she swims. The record-setting one at the 2009 Suffolk team championships (1 minute, 38.41 seconds), or the one at counties in 2010 (1:37.23) that broke the previous year's record. Or it could describe her state championship swim this past Nov. 20 (1:36.57).
Already a dual champ coming into the event - she won the 50-freestyle (23.48) and was part of the winning 200-medley relay (1:46.43) - Gaffey got the trifecta to cap her "senior" year in style. A traditional junior, Gaffey is graduating a year early and will attend Columbia University. She said she's felt the tug to stay in high school, but has no regrets.
"I think about how I could have four firsts or my times could be better," she said. "But I'm content about what I did. I want to graduate. I want to go to college. I want to experience the next level of swimming."
When she talks, she's a bundle of energy, stretching and craning her body. It's not done in a nervous way, but you sense that after excelling at academics, athletics and even music - she's an all-state violinist - Gaffey just might not know how to relax. She seems to be - pardon the pun - a fish out of water.
At the state championships, that's no problem. Gaffey ended her leg in the 200-free by touching the wall - ahead of everyone else, of course - and watching Sara Dieterich dive in to continue the relay. Then she pulled herself out of the pool for the last time in her high school career.
The fact that Dieterich helped win the two state championship relays - nevermind swam in them - is an astounding feat considering she missed the early part of the year with a calf strain in her right leg.
"Just a few weeks ago I wasn't even able to walk," she said. "I was just so humbled to come back and go to states. To actually accomplish what I've done, it's just an overwhelming feeling."
That experience helped lead her to athletic training as a possible career. "I really want to help people," she said. "I want to do something interacting with people, and I think helping people through sports is very satisfying."
When Dieterich, a junior, emerged from the water at the state meet, Connetquot not only held its lead, but actually increased it.
Now that's a full recovery.
Reyes: Dedication to swimming
Next up is Claudia Reyes. A sophomore, she's devoted to a life in the swimming lanes.
"I just like to really dedicate my mind to swimming," Reyes said. "I've always liked to swim, ever since I was little. And one day I said, 'I want to try out for the swim team.' And it just happened."
Reyes' relay leg at states once again bolstered the Thunderbirds' lead and was actually faster than Gaffey by .01. It's enough to make you think swimming might actually have been as easy for her as she makes it sound. But don't confuse confidence with taking states for granted.
"It's something a lot of people don't get to experience," she said. "It just doesn't really hit me until I stop and think about how big it really is."
Hetzer: The beat goes on
Nicole Hetzer swims the anchor leg, but you wouldn't use the word "anchor'' to describe her.
Possessing a light and positive personality, Hetzer wanted to be a teacher, but abandoned the idea after realizing she couldn't wake up quite so early every morning. She enjoys singing "whatever's on the radio, whatever comes to my mind."
Before she swims she shares an iPod with a teammate and tries to listen to fast music to pump her up.
"I try to get one with a good fast beat, so when I'm swimming I have that in my head," Hetzer said. "And then I keep up with the beat."
Hetzer, a sophomore, finishes the relay over a full second before the next team, securing a third title - the most ever for Connetquot at states. It's the second straight year this quartet has won the 200-free relay.
The four girls from Connetquot have their own personalities, strengths and hopes. But out of it, they find a winning unity.
"There's really no one leader," coach Alex Scichilone said. "They do it together, as a team."