Seven of the best swimmers on the UCSB swim and dive team will be competing in this weekend’s U.S. Swimming Winter Nationals in Austin, Texas. In the biggest swim meet since the Olympic Trials in summer, the invitational will allow the Gauchos to prepare for the upcoming conference season and possibly qualify for the NCAA Championships in spring.

“This meet is a benchmark to see where you are at. The goal is to post a time fast enough to make the NCAA,” senior Emma Hunt said. “We are rested for this meet, so the main goal is just to have the best time and it is really motivating if you could post your best time right now in this point and time in the season.”

Four women will represent the Gauchos, including Hunt, freshman Marissa Neel and juniors Sophia Yamauchi and Andrea Ward. The men will have three swimmers of their own competing, as sophomore Wade Allen, junior Randy Aakhus and senior Tim Freeman all qualified for this weekend’s invitational.

The three-day event, which began yesterday, will provide Santa Barbara with an opportunity to compete against some of the best swimmers in the nation, ranging from top collegiate athletes to established swimmers such as Olympic gold- medalists Missy Franklin and Ryan Lochte. Powerhouses including the likes of the University of Arizona, USC, UCLA and the University of Texas will also be present at this meet and enter as heavy favorites.

“Top swimmers in the world are going to be here. They make it a big deal; I’ve been to this event a number of times in the past and it just doesn’t seem to compare to other swimming events,” Yamauchi said. “They really make a point to put the swimmers first … There’s a really good atmosphere going and it’s kind of fun to be there and it makes you really happy that you went to the meet.”

An extra advantage the Gauchos will take with them is the amount of rest each swimmer has had going into the competition, as each skipped the team’s last swimming event held in Long Beach two weeks ago.

“We trained through [the Arena Invitational] instead of working our bodies hard at the Arena meet and not being able to come back and rest for nationals,” Hunt said. “[The rest] was beneficial because we kind of got a chance to rest our bodies, train and just focus on this meet.”

Yamauchi will be the Gaucho most likely to make headlines this weekend as she brings a level of experience with her, having already represented UCSB at a national stage when she swam in last spring’s NCAA Championships. In that event, Yamauchi’s highest finish was 35th in the 100-yard breaststroke; however, she has set higher expectations this time around.

“For all the events my goal is to make finals. I’m seeded 10th in the 200 IM and that’s the event I’m seededhighestin,”Yamauchisaid.“I think my goal for that is just to get as close to the top eight as possible and for the other events [just try] to get as close to my best time.”

The three-day event will run until Saturday and feature Gaucho swimmers in short distance, individual medleys and relay events.