In synchronized swimming as in life, growing older is a two-way street.
Juneau teens Sarah Felix and Koko Urata, both 13, are in Gainesville, Fla., this week to compete in the Esynchro Age Group Championships national meet, which draws nearly 1,100 competitors. It's the second straight trip to nationals for Felix and Urata, who swim for the Juneau Aurora Knights team.
Now that they're a year older, the duo is able to have more artistic freedom in their routines, and they now are allowed to do lifts in competition.
But they have to do all of that while going up against older swimmers. Because they turn 14 later this year - Felix in November and Urata in December - the two must swim in the age 14-15 division.
"It's kind of intimidating to see people close to 16 competing against you," Felix said last week. "They're all much bigger than us. ... But we're still going to go out and try our best."
In two weeks, they'll compete in an international meet - the United Airlines Open in Seattle - that has no age groups, meaning they'll be judged against swimmers as old as 18 or 19.
Felix was introduced to synchronized swimming about six years ago, and Urata has been involved with the sport for four years. Even with the age issue, this year is their second time at the national meet and they said they have a better idea of what to expect.
"This year we're mentally preparing ourselves more," Urata said.
"And we're more physically prepared, too," Felix said.
The two athletes have followed an impressive seven-day-a-week training regimen, including swimming with the Glacier Swim Club, gymnastics, ballet, dance and some running.
"They've been cross-training like there's no tomorrow," said Felix's mom, Karen Lawfer.
At last year's Esynchro national meet in Seattle, Felix and Urata's duet placed eighth among 41 teams in the age 12-13 division, one of three events they participated in. They also each swam solo routines and performed figures, a set of four required elements.
Last month, to qualify for this year's national meet, the duo competed in the age 14-15 division at a regional meet in Portland, Ore. Their duet took second; Urata was second in solo and third in figures; and Felix was third in solo and fifth in figures.
At this week's meet - competition starts today - Felix and Urata will perform their duet to "cha-cha" style music, and the routine will feature lifts for the first time as Felix lifts Urata out of the water - something younger swimmers are not allowed to do.
For solos, Felix will swim to a medley of music from the musical "Cats," and Urata will perform to classical lullaby music.
When they go to next month's United Airlines Open, the duo will be going in with a less competitive, more comparative attitude. They want to see how they match up to the older swimmers.
"It's going to be more for fun," Felix said of that meet. "We're not expecting to place first against girls six years older. ... We're going in with a good attitude to just see what happens."
Win or lose, the two girls said they appreciate the opportunity to compete.
"It's a great experience," Urata said. "How many people from Alaska can go and swim at a national level at our age?"
"All our hard work is paying off," Felix said.
And the duo is starting to reap rewards from competing on a regional and national stage for several years.
"We have a name now," Lawfer said of the Aurora Knights. "They know these two girls are serious. The Pacific Northwest has really embraced us.
"It's very competitive, but when (larger teams) see what these girls have done from year to year, they know they're serious and are willing to spend with us to help us get better."
Andrew Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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