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Kaylee Cooper envied the beautiful blue ribbons her older sister won for swimming when the two were just tots.
Now the South Medford senior swimmer is hoping for something a little sturdier: like a shiny state medal.
"I really want that," she says.
Cooper has reached the Class 6A state championships every year since she was a freshman but has never finished better than ninth place. As a top-level club competitor with the Superior Stingrays, she's shared pools with award-winning teammates like Aaron Ghiglieri (who now swims at Michigan), Sarah Reierson (who now swims at San Diego) and the Vanderbilt-bound Breanna Sapienza.
So this season, Cooper has trained harder, lifted more and ate healthier in hopes of making her own big splash. Her diligent work is already paying off as the 17-year-old signed a letter of intent with NCAA Division II Fresno Pacific University in Fresno, Calif., recently.
She and other locals will begin their quests for state gold by competing in district meets starting with preliminaries on Friday and finals on Saturday.
The 6A District 1 meet for the Panthers, North Medford, Crater, Grants Pass, Roseburg, Sheldon, South Eugene and Thurston is at Willamalane Parks Swim Center in Springfield. The 5A programs, Ashland and Eagle Point, will also swim there.
The 4A/3A/2A/1A District 4 meet — featuring Phoenix, Cascade Christian, St. Mary's, North Valley, Hidden Valley and six others — is at North Bend.
District winners and those with qualifying times advance to the state championships, set for Feb. 21-22 at Mt. Hood Community College Aquatic Center in Gresham.
Cooper is ranked first out of 21 swimmers heading in the 100-yard butterfly and is second out of 29 in the 200 freestyle. Her best time in the 100 fly is 1:00.06, and her fastest in the 200 free is 1:58.65.
She said she would love to break one minute in the 100 fly and come somewhere between 1:55 or 1:56 in the 200 free at districts.
Cooper has swam since she was 6 and doesn't do other sports. Seeing her older sister Jenna (who is a 19-year-old student at Oregon Tech) take home blue ribbons when the two were young made Kaylee excited to earn some.
"That made me keep going," she says.
It comes as no surprise that the youngest Cooper — 10-year-old Karissa — also swims. There's just something about the sport that they love, Kaylee says.
"Just being in the water is great," she says. "You have a team but you rely on yourself. I like pushing myself."
Cooper has been doing squats, leg presses, bench presses and other lifts to gain power. She typically eats oatmeal for breakfast, a protein-packed sandwich for lunch, something like chicken or beef with vegetables for dinner and a protein shake after practice.
Those actions have helped her in the water, where she was successful in several different events before honing in on the 100 fly and 200 free.
The added strength took some getting used to, South Medford head coach Robyn Schiffer says.
"She started off a little rocky this season but as the season has come along her times have been dropping," she says. "She's just been really working hard and now it's paying off."
If only for her attitude, Cooper is good to have on your side, Schiffer adds.
"She is a strong leader," Schiffer says. "She has a great personality and an awesome sense of humor. She is one of those kids that is quiet until she is comfortable and then she's hilarious."
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email email@example.com. Find him online at twitter.com/danjonesmt