After all this time, Katie Belle Sikes is still surprising herself.

In her second dual meet for the Orange swimming team last month, Sikes competed in the 500 yard freestyle, largely on a whim. She had never done it before in club swimming with the Hillsborough Aquatic Club or her new team, Eastern Carolina Aquatics.

It’s a marathon event compared to her forte, the 50-yard freestyle, where she won the 3A State Championship last year.

“I really like the 500,” Sikes said. “As a club swimmer, that’s not considered one of my prime events.”

Swimming against Cedar Ridge, she got out of the pool at the Orange County Sportsplex and saw a time of 5:19.81 on the digital scoreboard–a new school record.

“I think I’ll do the 500 one more time this year,” Sikes said.

When Sikes started her college recruitment, she wasn’t sure what schools would show interest. Her travel coach, Claudio Battaglini of ECA, told her she would hear from plenty of schools and encouraged her to see as much of the country as she could. She went into the process with her eyes wide open and unsure of what was ahead.

When the University of Georgia reached out, Sikes was pleasantly surprised.

It also caused a flashback of memories, or as much of one as a 16-year-old can have, anyway.

At the age of 12, Sikes competed at the University of Georgia’s Gabrielsen Natatorium for a national competition. It’s still her favorite place to swim.

“I knew back then that my dream was to swim in college,” Sikes said.

Sikes wasn’t sure if she was a Southeastern Conference-caliber swimmer until the recruitment process told her otherwise. She discovered that not only was she someone who could compete at the highest level of college swimming, but she could do it at the very place where her dream of swimming at the next level started.

“Honestly, it took me a really long time,” Sikes said. “I definitely didn’t think I was at that level. I kind of had other people tell me I could do this. I was like ‘OK, I guess?’ I didn’t want to set it as my goal because what if I don’t get there? It was pretty shocking.”

As part of her recruiting trip, Sikes attended Georgia’s football game against Auburn at Sanford Stadium on October 8. Of course, she also returned to Gabrielsen.

Days later, Sikes formally committed to Georgia. She also had recruiting trips to the University of North Carolina, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Virginia and Michigan.

Before deciding on Georgia, Sikes listened to Battaglini and saw the country. She stood inside massive Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor during the change of seasons as the leaves started to change colors.

“It was so cool,” Sikes said. “Honestly, I think it was just a little too cold for me. My parents said ‘I thought you liked the cold.’ I said ‘Not that level of cold.’ Hearing stories from swimmers about how they had to walk in the snow if they didn’t have a ride to the pool made me think I didn’t want to be around that.”

Sikes met one-on-one with Georgia head swimming coach Stefanie Williams-Moreno.

“I feel like there wasn’t a wrong decision at the end of the day,” Sikes said. “They were all such amazing experiences. Georgia was definitely the best option. There wasn’t a wrong answer, but Georgia was definitely the right one.”

Her decision didn’t just come down to swimming. Georgia has a college of veterinary medicine, which Sikes has in mind for a post-swimming career. Having grown up around dogs, her family fosters a pit bull mixed puppy named “Penny” that they got during the pandemic.

“I think she’s the favorite child,” Sikes said.

She also wanted a college town. Growing up next to Chapel Hill, she understood how special a college community can be.

“I wanted my own personal bubble,” Sikes said. “That’s what I like about Chapel Hill. In Athens, it feels like the college is the center of the town. I wasn’t interested in being in a big city where I’m secluded. Georgia is a good balance of all of that.”

Last February, Sikes became the first female swimmer in Orange High history to win a state championship when she captured the gold medal in the 50-yard freestyle in Cary. The only other swimmer to win a state championship in school history was Ben Scott, the 2018 3A 100-meter freestyle champion.

“Kristin and I are just so grateful to her current coaches here in North Carolina,” said Sikes’ father, Tommy. “We’re appreciative of her future coaches in Georgia for supporting her and allowing her to follow her dream of swimming in college. She has worked extremely hard, in and out of the water, and we are both so proud of her accomplishments.”

In her freshman year, Sikes was an immediate sensation amid quirky circumstances.

Starting her high school career in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sikes couldn’t compete with other swimmers across from her in opposite lanes like a standard dual meet. She was only able to attend a handful of practices. For much of the year, a  meet consisted of Sikes swimming in an empty pool competing only against a clock.

She won the 50-yard Central Regional championship, finished second in the state, and did all of it before she even had her first in-person class at Orange. As a freshman, she was named the Big 8 Conference Swimmer of the Year.

Sikes has plenty to accomplish before she packs the family SUV for Athens. This year, she has already qualified for six events in the Central Regionals, though she can only compete individually in two of them. She wants to set the state record in the 50-yard and 100-yard freestyle.

Perhaps what scariest for her competition is that Battaglini has encouraged Sikes to continue high school swimming, unlike previous travel coaches.

“High school swimming is a lot less stressful than club swimming,” Sikes said. “Claudio really wants me to do well in high school.”

Battaglini has gone as far to design a training plan for Sikes right up to the state championships next month. This season, in addition to the 500 yard freestyle, she has broken her own school record for the 50 yard freestyle, the 100 yard freestyle, the 200 yard freestyle and the 100 yard backstroke.

With one more year ahead of her and a 4.4 grade-point average, there’s still new ground that Sikes is trying to break for herself.

Her story is far from complete, but Sikes can rest assured that all the times that Sikes trained at the Sportsplex six days a week has paid off. Not just with a state championship and whatever else may come in the future, but also in how her dream as a 12-year-old came true.

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