This Saturday, a substantial part of downtown Atlanta will be awash in orange – Florida Gator orange, to be exact. The University of Florida’s football team will be playing for the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Championship against the University of Alabama at the Georgia Dome. It is expected that 20,000-30,000 Gator loyalists will descend on Atlanta hoping that its team can win a championship. The Gators football team is currently ranked 15th in the nation – high enough to be considered one of the top teams in the country – although they will have the daunting challenge of having to knock off the #1 team in the country in the Crimson Tide.
Despite their Top 25 ranking, this is not considered a banner year for Florida football. Gators fans are accustomed to being a part of the national championship picture – not playing spoiler. They are used to big stars such as Tim Tebow, Emmitt Smith, and other players who are expected to be high draft picks in the next NFL Draft – including many underclassmen. So, while surviving a brutal SEC schedule to make it to Atlanta should always be cause for celebration, many Florida fans are just hoping to stay competitive against top ranked Alabama and make it a close game.
While the Florida athletic department exerts its muscle to sell tickets to the game and rally this year's lukewarm alumni, students, and friends on behalf of the football team, most will not realize that the football is not even the highest ranked Florida Gators team competing in Atlanta this weekend!
Less than two miles from the Georgia Dome, Florida’s #3-ranked men’s and #13-ranked women’s swimming teams will be competing at USA Swimming’s AT&T Winter National Championships at the McAuley Aquatic Center – the swimming venue used for the 1996 Olympic Games – on the campus of Georgia Tech. Swimming, you might ask? Well, who cares about swimming anyway?
Gator fans are used to competing for national championships. Over the years, Florida might be to swimming what Alabama has to football. Gators swimmers are a fixture on the international and Olympic scenes. Ever hear of a girl named Elizabeth Beisel or a guy named Ryan Lochte? While, while Lochte might be a few years removed from the Gators’ lineup, they do have another US Olympic star named Caleb Dressel – arguably the greatest current Florida Gator athlete.
Dressel might not a household name to most outside the swim community – in part to the competing popularity of Lochte and fellow teammate Michael Phelps – who garner most of America’s swimming attention. But, they both can thank Dressel for his accomplishments at this summer’s Rio Olympics where Dressel joined Phelps on the gold medal 400 Freestyle Relay team as well as the 400m Medley Relay team – both before his 20th birthday on August 16th. That was hardly a fluke as he also was the 2016 NCAA champion in the 50y and 100y free for those same Florida Gators. (In the 50 y Free, he successfully defended his 2015 NCAA championship in the event) and a top 2 finish at the Olympic Trials in June – just to make it to Rio. Dressel is currently the American record holder in both of those events too – setting the 50y record at the SEC Swimming & Diving Championships earlier this year.
Dressel is one of America’s great young swimmers and likely to be on the USA National Team and Olympic scene for quite a while. He has already claimed national titles in the 50m and 100m free at USA Swimming’s 2015 Phillips 66 National Championships and also won six medals at the 2013 FINA World Junior Championships - gold in the 100m free, silver in the 400m free relay, silver in the mixed 400m free relay, and bronze in the mixed 400m medley relay, 50m free, and the 800m free relay. Not a bad resume for a guy who just turned twenty in August!
Joining Florida at the AT&T Winter National Championships are a number of other Olympians including medalists Tom Shields, Kevin Cordes, Melanie Margalis, and Amanda Weir. The Olympians will be chased by swimmers from some top nationally ranked colleges including Indiana, North Carolina, NC State, Kentucky and many others.
So, while the Gator faithful gather in Atlanta this weekend, it would great to see a few walk or Uber over to the McAuley Aquatic Center to catch a glimpse of some of Florida’s other superstars competing in Atlanta on Saturday.
You can follow all of the action from the other big event in Atlanta at: http://www.usaswimming.org/DesktopDefault.aspx?TabId=1418&Alias=Rainbow&Lang=en