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THE GRIND: Forsyth Central's Shelby Black doing whatever it takes in the pool
Grind Shelby 1 112614 webreal
A fractured back forced Forsyth Central's Shelby Black away from the balance beam and into the pool, where the state-qualified swimmer balances long days at club and school practices. - photo by Micah Green

Shelby Black walked into the Cumming Aquatic Center on Monday morning for Forsyth Central swim practice running a little late.

Understandable: she was coming from her practice with Swim Atlanta in Johns Creek.

It’s among the tougher balances in any high school sport, for swimming has followed the way of baseball, lacrosse, softball and so many other of today’s sports in the emphasis on competition on club and travel teams. But by nature, swimming is different. It’s indoors, so it is year-round, and so there is no break for the high school season as there are for other sports. The best swimmers do both. They must. Their exposure to colleges depends on it.

So consider a typical Saturday for Black during the high school season. From 7 to 9 a.m., she’s at Swim Atlanta practice. From 11:45 a.m. until the evening, she’s at a high school meet with the Lady Bulldogs.

“It’s a long day,” Black said, “but I love it.”

Black never thought she’d love swimming as much as she once loved gymnastics, but here she is, a senior who signed to swim at Liberty University next season and the leader of Central’s girls team. She’s already hit state meet qualifying times in the 50 and 100 freestyle, 100 butterfly and on the girls’ 200 freestyle and 200 medley relay teams.

Black already knows her times at the state meet in February will be her best in any high school event this season. It’ll be the only high school meet where she said she feels close to peak form, for she spends so much time and energy competing and training with her club team.

Priorities tug between club and high school, and each has its own compelling pull. Club swimming is the clear avenue toward a college and even Olympic future. It’s how Black got noticed by Liberty swimming and diving head coach Jake Shellenberger.

Liberty was one of a handful of schools who contacted Black this summer and convinced her to visit the campus. Black went on four visits in all, but Liberty stood out the most.

“I just think that school’s going to push me the furthest and I can go the furthest in swimming,” Black said. “The coach is really tough, but I think that’s what I need to get as far as I can.”

Black relishes her time with the high school team, too.

“High school is fun for me,” Black said. “You get to be part of another team, meet new people, and it’s just fun.”

More than anything, Black loves the competition in swimming. It filled a void for her when she couldn’t compete in gymnastics. Gymnastics had been part of her life since she was 4, but over the nine years she competed the pounding took its toll so that finally one seemingly innocuous fall off a balance beam left her with a fractured back. No more impact sports, doctors told her.

Swimming was the natural choice then. Practices were shorter. Races fueled her adrenaline.

“As soon as I started I kind of fell right in,” Black said. “I just loved the competitive aspect.”

Two years in at 15 years old, she made the jump into the elite levels, competing against high school seniors vying for college scholarships. It was daunting but motivating.

“I think that’s what made me faster because I saw those people and wanted to be like them,” Black said.

Now, she is one of them. She’s the senior with the college scholarship, a NCSA Junior Nationals qualifier who is eager to get back to the event in Orlando in March.

She’s doing whatever it takes, only in a different sport.

“You just have to want it really bad,” Black said.