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<p>UF swim coach Gregg Troy watches his team's weight training at an early morning practice in the O'Connell Center on Feb. 7, 2008.&nbsp;</p>

UF swim coach Gregg Troy watches his team's weight training at an early morning practice in the O'Connell Center on Feb. 7, 2008. 

Natalie Pike captured it perfectly.

"This is the one that counts," she said. "This is the big one."

Pike and the UF swimming and diving team begin the 2008 Southeastern Conference Championships in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Thursday.

Altogether, 42 UF swimmers and divers made the trip to the University of Alabama, with the men (3-2 SEC) bringing 20 swimmers and the women (5-1 SEC) taking 18 swimmers and four divers.

While both teams have posted winning records, they know that the SEC Championships is a different monster than any dual meet.

"You want to go there and, hopefully, step it up a notch and actually perform to a higher level than you have in any of the dual meets all year," said diving coach Donnie Craine.

Pike added: "Well, it kind of creeps up on you real fast, but on the other hand, it is what we prepare for all year long."

The SEC Championships is one of the last chances for swimmers to qualify for the NCAA Championships in March. That will just be another thing on swimmers' minds as they compete against other top-ranked schools, including Georgia (No. 1 women's team) and defending national champion Auburn, as well as dealing with the exhaustion a four-day marathon meet brings.

"It's pretty grueling, but we've all been through it, and everyone, not just us, every single team's been through the same thing. Everyone's feeling as tired as you are," Pike said.

Swimming coach Gregg Troy added: "We tend to get better as we go through the meet, and our best events are at the end of the meet. I think it's real key for us to stay in the meet, because the last day is our big day."

Troy is firm in his belief that he's made the right decision as to who will be swimming this week. He believes the women's team will have its best shot in the backstroke events and the mid-distance freestyle events. The diving will also come in handy for points.

The men's team, which Troy believes is better suited for a championships-style meet than a dual meet, will rely upon the individual medleys and distance freestyle events.

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"The men's team has some guys that are a little higher-profile," Troy said.

The meet may bring flashes of déjà vu, as the Gators have seen every SEC team in swimming action and every team except Alabama and South Carolina on the diving boards.

"You have to know before you step up on the block whether you know you can beat the person next to you or not, and that's just what it comes down to," Pike said.

Freshman diver Monica Dodson added: "You never know what other teams are going to bring to the plate. You just have to be prepared for everything, but I think with what we have seen, we have a good chance of doing well."

Dodson, along with divers Jeana Bartell and Sarah Ellerby, will be making their first appearances in the SEC Championships.

"I actually got to watch the SEC meet my freshman year because it was here, and it was a really exciting meet to watch," Ellerby said. "It's sort of bittersweet to be in my last year and be going (for the first time), but I'm really excited that I made the team."

UF swim coach Gregg Troy watches his team's weight training at an early morning practice in the O'Connell Center on Feb. 7, 2008. 

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