For 10-year-old Natika Dannenfelser of Bel Air, the water in the swimming pool at Edgewood Middle School must seem like a second home.
As a competitive swimmer for the Edgewood Aquanauts Swim Club, she swims with her teammates at the school two hours a day, six days a week, prepping for meet competition. Head coach Fred Lee says she rarelymisses a practice.
Swimming lap after lap, she covers an average of 5,000 yards a night.
And not only does she get in a good workout, she obviously has fun doing it.
There is laughing and splashing among her and her friends, although Lee makes sure to keep it at a minimum.
There isa serious side to the young girl who began swimming at age 3 and hasbeen competitive since age 7. She is constantly working on improvingher times, listens to Lee and makes adjustments.
"Practice hard, listen to your coach, don't get sick and don't get hurt," is how Natika says she improves in the water.
In January, at the Retriever Classic Meet at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Natika established a new state record in the 50-yard breast stroke with a time of 34:43, a top-16 national time in her age group.
She also has posted top 16-national times in other events, most notably the 100 breast stroke, 100 individual medley, 200 IM and 200 freestyle.
Natika, simply put, has discovered the essence of athletic competition: becoming the best she can be while still having fun.
"She hates losing -- period," says Steve Dannenfelser, Natika's father.
"She'll make her body do anything to win. She's real focused and intense when in the meet. She has real high goals for herself."
Her body is sleek and well-defined, with high muscle mass.
"She's an incredible athlete, says Lee, who has been coaching the Aquanauts for 14 years.
"She's very strong and well-coordinated."
Steve Dannenfelser, whois on the board of the Maryland Swimming Committee as treasurer and is a swim meet referee, grew up in California and Arizona. But he andhis wife, Tika, never swam competitively.
Natika likes swimming because it is a personal experience, just her against the clock.
"You don't have to talk to people, and people don't run in to you," said the brown-haired, brown-eyed Natika.
The whole Dannenfelser family is involved in swimming. Natika's sisters, Carrie, 14, Sarah, 12, and Maggie, 9, also swim for the Aquanauts. Little sister Elly, almost 11 months old, is not swimming quite yet, Steve Dannenfelser says. He jokes that if she swims, he'll be involved in swimming for the next 20 years.
Natika is a fifth-grader at Homestead-Wakefield Elementary and keeps an "A" average. She says math used to be her favorite subject, but now she likes reading, writing and composition.
She and Coach Lee are preparing for the Eastern Zone Meet, set for April 2-5 in Princeton, N.J.
She qualified for the meet by placing first or second in a zone qualifier held earlier this month at Towson StateUniversity.
An all-star team will represent the state of Maryland. Natika will probably compete in the 200, 100 and 50 freestyle, 100 and 50 breast stroke and 200 freestyle.
Lee says Natika's best is the breast stroke, but she also is strong in the IM events, which shows she has the capability to improve.
Aquanauts Omar Fraser (11), Chris Holloway (16), Elizabeth Harris (16) and Melissa Harris also have qualified for the Eastern
Next year, Natika will move into the 11-12 age bracket, where the competition will toughen. That age group is now occupied by teammates Jodi Encapara and Katy Novotny, two talented swimmers from Bel Air who have qualified for the Eastern Zone Meet.
Next on the schedule for Natika would be the Maryland Junior Olympics, although by a rule of United States Swimming (USS), no swimmer can enter the same event in the Junior Olympics as in the Eastern Zone Meet.
The Maryland Junior Olympics is scheduled for April 11-12 at Edgewood Middle School, Natika's home away from home.