LAWRENCEVILLE - Minutes before any big race, Aileen Cole is scared.
She's put in the practice. Hours a day, six days a week. She knows she's a winner. She is the two-time defending state 50-yard freestyle swimming champion. She's raced thousands of times. She's been a competitive swimmer for more than a decade.
Yet despite the preparation, experience and championships, she is scared. It's because of her opponents, not her confidence.
"When I am up against really fast people, I am scared of losing," Cole said. "I think I am more competitive when it comes down to who I am racing."
Maybe it's the thousands of races or the resume of wins, but Cole's fear stays on the swimming deck. She doesn't race scared.
"For me, I am scared up until I step up onto the blocks and then it is more like, 'I am going to take these girls down,'" Cole said. "My coach right now ... he tells me to get mean. I try to do that."
Now that is a challenge.
Cole is a fast swimmer. So fast, that Georgia's No. 1-ranked 50 free swimmer is headed to Louisville next year to keep swimming. Cole is a committed swimmer. She has worked out at SwimAtlanta since she was 9 years old and only takes Sundays off.
But Cole is not a mean swimmer. Or mean at all.
The senior at Peachtree Ridge laughs quickly and smiles easily. She even lets her non-swimming friends beat her in races when she hangs out at the pool. Even in a real race, she is not a sore loser.
"I am not, like, a mean person at all," Cole said. "Once the race is over we hug each other over the lane ropes and say, 'Good job.'"
Behind her smiles and hugs, Cole wants to win. And she wants to win against the best. She takes pride in improving her personal times. Her favorite event to race right now is the 100 breaststroke because she took years off from the event and her times ballooned.
"I think that kind of motivates you when you have a big time drop," she said. "It is one of my events that I am going to be working on."
But competition drives Cole.
Her best times in the 50 free came against the best competition, when motivation went beyond personal goals and her competitive pride took over.
"I think I am more competitive when it comes down to who I am racing," Cole said. "I have done my best times when I am up against my hardest competition.
"I think it's because it gets my adrenaline pumping. I am scared, but at the same time, it is intimidating. But I want it more when I am up against pretty competitive people."
That is why Cole is looking forward to this year's state championships. There is new competition to defend her state title against - Walton's Erin Reisinger.
"I don't know where she came from, but she is amazing," Cole said. "I am going to be looking out for her. I am looking forward to it, definitely."
So before that race, give Cole a break, she might not be so quick to laugh.
"I am going to be a little bit scared, " she said.
At least until she steps onto the block.
SideBar: The Cole File
Who: Aileen Cole
School: Peachtree Ridge
Favorite food: Sushi
Favorite athlete: Roger Federer
Favorite TV shows: "Prison Break," "Desperate Housewives"
· Committed to swim at Louisville
· Two-time defending state champion in 50 freestyle
· Ranked No. 1 in the state in the 50 freestyle
· Maintains a 3.55 GPA