Before committing to the University of South Dakota or becoming one of the best freestyle swimmers in the state, Jay Paulson was an 8-year-old boy chasing after a girl.

He had a crush on a girl on the swim team, so he decided to give swimming a try. Paulson ended up changing schools, so a love story never came into fruition. Instead, he fell in love with swimming, something that has meant the world to him.

"It's the best thing to ever happen to me," Paulson said. "I love the sport. ... You can either prove yourself or you don't. It's clear cut who's the best. You either are or you aren't. You just work for it."

Through twists and turns, Paulson had proven himself throughout his career. With a greater focus on the freestyle stroke and improved technique, he transitioned from a backstroke swimmer at an early age to excelling in freestyle races.

He took fourth in the 50-yard freestyle at the South Dakota swimming short course championships this winter for MAC, which hosts the Corn Palace Invite Friday through Sunday at Hitchcock Park.

"He takes a lot of time and puts in a lot of effort in perfecting his other strokes," MAC coach Clyde Smith said. "He's worked really hard to be a more well-rounded swimmer."

It's led to him garnering multiple college offers and committing to swim at USD next season, citing its addition of a biomedical engineering program as a big reason. But his path to Vermillion, especially over the past year, wasn't a straight line.

The soon-to-be Coyote grew up in Yankton swimming for the Vermillion Area Swim Team. He worked out with USD coach and VAST President Jason Mahowald during summer practices, sparking a relationship that played a factor in his commitment to USD.

"I've never heard anyone say anything bad about him," Mahowald said. "The kids that swim with him love swimming with him. I think he has a very laid-back persona about him."

However, Vermillion's only older swimmer graduated last season, so Paulson decided to look for a new team. He knew Smith from when he competed against Snowfox in Sioux Falls, and saw the impact he's made since moving to Mitchell. MAC also has two other seniors and one junior on the team.

"(MAC) has been doing really good at all the state meets," Paulson said. "They've gotten really fast, so I wanted to be part of that, too."

Paulson started to compete for MAC this winter as a senior at Yankton High School. He had sixth and seventh periods open, allowing him to leave school early to make the 1-hour, 30-minute drive to Mitchell for practice.

With two-a-days in the summer and needing to workout in between, Paulson is getting a taste of college life before heading to Vermillion. He lives on his own in Mitchell, working as a lifeguard at the pool.

"Cooking is difficult," Paulson said, laughing. "I struggle to cook food. There's a lot to keep track of living on your own."

Ironically, by living alone, the self-proclaimed "quiet person" is finally part of a team with swimmers his age. The competition, longer two-hour practices and Smith's coaching has led to improved times as a senior. He took third in the 200 individual medley at the short course championships.

"A lot of it has to do with swimming with kids his own ability," Smith said. "We put him in a position to race everyday in practice, so I think that's why we saw a huge jump in what he did this year."

Mahowald envisions Paulson being a sprint and middle distance freestyler at USD, which is fitting considering the 50 free is his favorite event since, "It's an absolute adrenaline rush the whole time." With more race experience and time in the weight room, Mahowald thinks Paulson can swim backstroke and medley races for the Coyotes, too.

However, he doesn't like to put ceilings on his swimmers, saying, "If you've got the determination and will, and are willing to sacrifice and do the things you need to do, there's no reason you can't get to the level you want to get to. But that's up to Jay and every other athlete."

Paulson thinks his trek from Yankton to Vermillion and then Mitchell on a daily basis proves his heart and determination. Smith agrees, adding how his heart helps him shine in the IM.

"I have the dedication," Paulson said. "I want to be good, I have the desire to be good and that's what it takes. You have to want to be the best to be good."