Seen here in an earlier meet against the Doral Firebirds, Key West sprint swimmer AJ Smith will enter the FHSAA State Championships as a medal favorite, following a gold-medal performance at the 2A regional championships. GRACE ANDREW/Keys Weekly

Less than two weeks after earning double district gold, Key West’s AJ Smith is at it again.

Key West’s swimmers went to Jensen Beach to compete at the FHSAA 2A Regional Championships on Oct. 28. The Conchs had multiple individual and relay teams earning lanes at regionals this year, spelling out a successful season for the team. The Conch relays performed well, but the competition in other regions was just too strong to win an at-large bid to the state meet. 

Senior AJ Smith took his fate into his own hands, qualifying automatically for a lane at states with gold and silver performances in his swim sprint specialties. Smith won the 50 freestyle event outright, adding a gold regional medal to his collection. He then went on to take second in the 100 free, making him a dual individual competitor in Ocala. 

Smith made the cut last season as well, and his performance in the 50 free event cracked the top 10 but was just shy of a medal. This year, Smith is ranked number one in the entire state in the 50, with his qualifying time well ahead of last year’s first place performance. Smith is ranked number six in the 100 free event, putting him in contention for two state medals this season, which would cap off an amazing high school career. Smith already owns a school record and is one of the most decorated athletes to swim for the Conchs. 

One day before Smith’s performance, a talented group of Hurricane swimmers traveled to Nova Southeastern University Aquatics Complex to compete against the most elite athletes in South Florida. 

Coral Shores coach Kelly Kater could not be prouder of her team and how they performed at regionals. “Every single athlete dropped time from districts,” she said, which is exactly what a coach wants to happen at the end of the season. But for four swimmers, last week did not spell out the end. 

The Coral Shores 200 yard medley relay team finished ninth out of 28 teams competing, and their 1:55.08 time was strong enough to qualify for the state championship meet on Friday, Nov. 3. The foursome of Layne Smith, Allegra Fucaraccio, Abbie Sargent and Riley Cooper will make the trip to Ocala in hopes of returning with a state medal for the Hurricanes. 

Sargent will be performing double duties for the ’Canes. She qualified in the individual 100 yard breaststroke event, in which she placed second at districts. At regionals, Sargent shaved off an incredible 2 seconds from her district time. Her sixth-place finish was fast enough for a lane at states, putting her in contention for two medals this season. 

“The girls have been working incredibly hard to get to this point,” Kater said. “Jon (Olsen) has been helping with technique to help shave off time and compete with confidence, and it shows. I’m super proud of them and cannot wait to watch them compete with the best of the state next week.” 

The accomplishments of the Keys swimmers are unquestionably fantastic, but the nature of private and charter schools catering to athletics in the past decade has made what local athletes have done so far even more incredible. This is especially true in the 1A division, in which Coral Shores participates. The 200 yard medley team ranks 18th in the entire state of Florida, a feat in itself, but when the private and charter schools are removed from the mix, the Hurricanes’ relay team ranks third among public schools. Of 24 qualifiers plus two alternates making the cut in the individual 100 yard backstroke event, Sargent is just one of two swimmers representing a Florida 1A public school. 

The Keys’ five qualifying athletes will compete at the Florida Aquatics Swimming Training center in Ocala at the FHSAA State Championships. Key West’s AJ Smith hits the water on Nov. 3 and Coral Shores’ quartet competes the following day.

Tracy McDonald fled to the Keys from the frozen mountains of Pennsylvania hours after graduating from college and never looked back. She is a second generation coach and educator, and has taught in the public school system for over 25 years. She and her husband met at a beginning teacher meeting in 1997 and have three children born and raised in Monroe County. In her free time, McDonald loves flea markets, historical fiction and long runs in the heat.