WILMINGTON, North Carolina - A self-proclaimed "water baby" in her younger days, Carly Tanner never really enjoyed competing as a preschooler. Boy, how times have changed.

The bubbly senior from UNCW punched her ticket to the 2013 NCAA Women's Swimming and Diving Championships late Wednesday, becoming only the second women's swimmer in the school's history to reach the pinnacle of collegiate swimming.

She will compete in the 50 Freestyle, 100 Freestyle and 100 Breaststroke on March 21-23 at the IU Natatorium/IUPUI Sports Complex in Indianapolis, Ind. The spectacular venue will serve as the site of the 2013 Phillips 66 National Championships and World Championship Trials later this summer.

Heading into the meet in Indy, Tanner is ranked 23rd in the 100 Breaststroke, 36th in the 50 Freestyle and 128th in the 100 Freestyle.

"Without a doubt, Carly's one of the top female swimmers we've ever had in the program," said 36-year veteran coach Dave Allen, a 15-time CAA Coach-of-the-Year honoree. "She certainly has to rank up there near the very top.

"She's a very talented swimmer who has worked hard and improved every year. She's done everything she's needed to do, inside and outside the pool, to get better."

Tanner cleared her path to the NCAA meet by raking in five medals at last week's CAA Championships, earning Co-Outstanding Swimmer of the Meet honors with Towson's Kaitlin Burke. She joins Caitlin Kirsteier (2010) as UNCW's only female swimmers to reach the NCAA's.

"I never would have guessed this would happen," said Tanner, who hails from Manassas, Va. "It's such an honor to represent our program, the university and our conference."

Tanner will continue to train over the next three weeks after making a big splash at the CAA meet. She won three gold medals in the 50 Freestyle (22.79), 100 Freestyle (49.91) and 100 Breaststroke (1:00.01). She also captured a silver in the 200 Freestyle Relay and a bronze in the 200 Medley Relay.

Tanner's impressive performance at George Mason's McKay Natatorium began last Friday with the fastest race - the 50 Free. "There was so much pressure," Tanner recalled. "I won the 50 Free last year, so I was pretty confident, but I knew the 100 Breast and the 100 Free were going to be a challenge. I wanted to go in and just have the meet of my life."

That she did, scoring every day and totaling 60 points as the UNCW women came in fourth overall behind Towson, James Madison and William & Mary.

"I didn't do as well as I was hoping to do in the 50 Free in the finals," Tanner said. ""I was pretty fussy after the 50 Free. I was a tenth off the school record. I medaled, which was great, but my time wasn't the school record and that's what I really wanted. But I led of the relay, and I was able to go faster and get the school record, which I was really happy about.

"The second day was the 100 Breaststroke and breaststroke has always been my thing. I've been a breaststroker my whole life. I was never a sprint freestyler until I came to college. I was nervous because it meant the most. I started to get choked up on the podium. I've never been the best. I've always been second or third. That was definitely the most meaningful event.

"The 100 Freestyle was on the last day. The last day just comes down to who wants it the most because everyone is so toasted. Your body is starting to give out with fatigue. The morning swim was hard and I just wanted to get my hand on the wall first at night and do the best I could."

Tanner came to UNCW as a breaststroke specialist, but developed into a premier sprint freestyler for Allen's successful program.

"The 100 Breaststroke has always been my baby," she said. "It's also the event that gives me the most headaches. I always worry about how I'm going to do. If I don't do well, it's the end of the world."

Allen also said Tanner arrived in Wilmington as a breaststroker, but her versatility was too good to pass up. "She came here to swim the breaststroke, but after the first year, we learned that we could use in other events such as relays. After she developed in those, we decided to use her in the other events in meets. Her times were higher than in some of the individual events in the conference.

"She accepted it because she's all about the team doing well. We didn't have a big supporting cast around her this year because of the graduation of 13 seniors, so we looked at what we could do to make Carly more successful and, in turn, make the team better."

Like many student-athletes, Tanner approached last week's CAA meet with the usual routine, including embedded superstitions.

"I'm extremely superstitious," she said. "My teammates make fun of me because of it. I have a ritual that before every race I have to crack all my knuckles, make sure my goggles are clear and I can't sit on the sidelines too long before the races because I get too nervous

"Before the meet I have to have all my bags packed perfectly, the same way every time. It just helps me relax going into the meet knowing I have everything where it should be."

Tanner called the last four years "very rewarding" after a slow start to her swimming career at a young age. "I started swimming around six and I used to cry during the swim meets because I never wanted to swim in the meets. My Mom just let me swim in practice and not in the meets for a couple years."

Tanner has made up for lost time, though. She leaves UNCW with school records in the 50 Freestyle (22.45) and 100 Breaststroke (1:00.01).

"I fell in love with UNCW during my recruiting trip," she recalled. "I came down and called my Mom and told her I loved the people, the atmosphere, the campus and everything about here. I didn't get that anywhere else. Everyone here was a family and very welcoming."

Tanner celebrated her CAA run with, what else? Sleep. That will have to do for now as preparation for the NCAA meet calls.

"It's going to be a mini-season in three weeks. I'll spend this week on aerobics, next week on power and sprint work and then rest up before the meet. It's going to be a grueling three weeks, especially since everyone else on the team is enjoying their time off. I wouldn't trade it for anything, though. It's definitely worth it."

When Tanner graduates in early May, she leaves a legacy that will not soon be forgotten.

"I just want everyone to understand that hard work pays off. I was never really the most talented swimmer. I was never the best in high school and never THAT girl. I just worked my butt off and it paid off. It's a good lesson to learn for an athlete."