Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

LEESBURG -- Watch little Nicole Fye as she dives into the pool. There's barely a splash, hardly a ripple.

It's such a sweet irony.

There's Nicole, leaping into the national scene, sending her own ripples across the country, making the kind of splash few 11-year-olds could ever dream of making. Nicole never dreamed it either.

She's not even in sixth grade yet and lives in a world where Harry Potter reads like Shakespeare and life is giggling with friends and listening to her iPod -- and swimming is "cool" just because it's so much fun.

Nicole tends to pepper her speech with the word "cool" because, well, she's 11. She's as bright as daybreak and as energetic as Edison.

Oh yes, and when it comes to swimming the 200-meter butterfly, she is the fastest in the country. She not only has the best time in that event for an 11-year-old in America, but she is ranked by U.S.A. Swimming in the top 10 in the nation in four other events.

"She's probably better than a lot of lower level college swimmers now. She's better than the Darton kids right now, and faster than any of the high school kids in Lee or Dougherty County,'' said Jeff DeMott, who coaches Nicole for his Flint River Rapids swim club. "She could score in the Junior College National Meet right now. She would probably score in the top 16 in most of her events, and in the 200 butterfly, 200 backstroke and 100 fly she would be in the top eight.''

Nicole's best time in the 200-meter butterfly is 2:34.12. She is also ranked seventh in the nation in the 800-meter freestyle (10:18.14), eighth in the 100-meter butterfly (1:11.59), ninth in the 200-meter freestyle (2:19.63) and 10th in the 200-meter-backstroke (2:37.08).

"I've been coaching for 26 years,'' he said. "I coached national champions. All things considered, she is the best young swimmer I've ever coached. I coached Beth Goodwin in Maryland from the time she was 12 until she was 18 and left for UCLA. She won four YMCA national titles and went on to win the gold medal at the Pan Am Games. Nicole is better. I've had other kids finish in the top 16 in the nation, and Nicole outstrips them all. Ultimately, the sky is the limit at this point.''

No one, least of all Nicole, thought she would be a national swimmer. At least not in the beginning. Her mother, Jeanne, was a top high school swimmer in Virginia, and earned a partial scholarship to swim at Penn State, but Jeanne Fye never expected this.

The Fyes don't even have a pool.

The idea in the beginning, when the family lived in the Chicago suburb Naperville, was to get Nicole involved with a swimming program to meet kids, have friends and just have some fun. It was more of a social function than anything else.

"I always enjoyed it, and thought she might enjoy it, so we signed her up for a swimming program at a nearby pool,'' Jeanne Fye said. "I never thought about her swimming competitively.''

That's what happened, and when the family moved to Lee County when Nicole was 8 that's exactly what she was -- an average kid who liked to swim with her friends.

"She was very middle of the pack, an unremarkable swimmer,'' said DeMott, who almost smiles when he says it now.

So what happened?

"She is just so dedicated, such a hard worker,'' DeMott said. "She is very intelligent and so diligent in her work ethic.''

It makes a difference, every day at practice. In fact, twice a day. During the school year, Nicole gets up at 5 a.m., comes from her home in Lee County to the pool at Albany State, where the Rapids practice, and swims from 6 a.m. until 7:30 a.m., then goes to school, which begins at 8:20 a.m. She practices two hours after school every day.

Sometimes more.

"She just loves to swim,'' DeMott said. "A lot of times I will tell the group we are going to have one hard swim, but when it's over we will get to leave early. The kids love that. But Nicole will come to me afterward and ask to stay and swim some more.''

And Nicole is always striving to become better.

"We were working on her stroke once, and she was having problems with it,'' DeMott said. "So I told her to just slow down and not to worry and to go in a slower lane for now. She was so upset, she teared up, and said 'I'll fix it. I'll fix it.' She wanted to keep pushing hard to get it.''

DeMott and the Fyes, Jeanne and Vance, all know about the delicate balance that's needed to make sure no one pushes too hard.

"You have to be on your toes,'' DeMott said. "She can do an adult workout now, but she's only 11 and not strong enough for it. You have to be careful. I've had children of swimmers before. Every child is different. Most of the time, they know everything. Nicole isn't like that. she just wants to learn. And her parents are great with her. Jeanne was a college swimmer, but she is very hands-off, and does a very good job.''

It's that balance being maintained between her coach and her parents that has allowed Nicole to progress without ever losing sight of why she jumped in the pool to begin with -- to have fun.

"I swim because I enjoy it so much,'' Nicole said. "I just did it for fun when I started. Some of my friends were doing it, and we just had fun. It was fun to swim at practice and go to the meets. I just kept learning, and when I got here (to Southwest Georgia) I learned more and more new things from coach Jeff.''

She glides in the water, and makes even the most difficult strokes all too easy.

"Her strokes are so effective,'' Jeanne Fye said. "Jeff has done a great job with her technique. Watching her butterfly, it's so pretty to watch. At this age there's no comparison between where she's at and where I was at. I'm ahead of her in some of my (college) times, but I don't see it lasting very long.''

No one has to push her, because the fact is she swims for the pure joy of it, and the competitiveness has just added a new dimension for Nicole, who competes against the clock more than other swimmers. She is the kind who would rather swim a personal best time than win the event. Of course, she does both, but it's that me-against-the-clock mentality that usually produces the best competitors. And practices? Well, they're still fun.

"When I swim in the morning before school I always want to keep swimming,'' said Nicole, who has no problems in her classes, where she is a 4.0 student at Lee County Middle School. "I love racing people because we get to go places and have meets, but it's always about the times I swim.

"It's thrilling to be ranked No. 1, but it's really about the time,'' she said. "I wanted to get the 2:34. Last year I was swimming it in 2:44, so my time dropped 10 seconds. That's what I'm really happy about.''

Being in the top 10 in the nation wasn't an accident.

"I first saw the top 10 list in Splash magazine last year,'' Nicole said. "And at the end of school this year coach Jeff and I talked about what my goals should be for this summer, and I asked him about the top 10 list. When I told him I wanted to make the top 10 list he gave me a list of things to do.

"It's just a cool thing to do, to be in the top 10,'' she said. "Coach Jeff has really helped me a lot. I wouldn't be here without him. I really appreciate everything he has done.''

The Fyes know what being on that list means, but no one is mapping out a long future for Nicole just yet.

"It's exciting,'' Jeanne Fye said. "I know being in the top 10 is something she wanted. It's nice being ranked No. 1, but it's more about her times than anything. She always wants to keep improving.''

That's what makes Nicole such a phenom at her age, because no one knows how much she can improve. Her next goal is to swim against the top high school swimmers.

"I really want to swim in the Senior States,'' she said. It's in December and it includes all the top high school swimmers in Georgia, but it's open to all ages if you have a good enough time. I just think that would be a cool opportunity.''

Nicole loves music, and even has a pre-meet song she listens to every time she swims. She cranks up her iPod and plays "I Can't Hold Back,'' a rock song by Survivor from 1999 to get ready to compete.

The word Olympics is bound to come up with every child athletic prodigy, and it's there for Nicole, who handles it with more maturity than you would expect from an 11-year-old.

"I do want to go to the Olympic Trials some day,'' she said. "It's in the back of my mind. I think about it every once in a while, but right now I'm just thinking about my goals for this summer.''

What a sweet irony.