By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Every four years at the Olympic Trials, there are more new faces in the water than familiar ones, and next week in Omaha, that will once again be the case. Here are five – including a 2008 Olympic veteran – who have a strong shot at making the 2012 Olympic Team.
5. David Nolan – The David Nolan who takes the blocks next week in Omaha is a far cry from the chubby youngster who overcame a flabby waistline and ridicule for choosing swimming to become a state champion and Olympic hopeful.
“I was introduced to McDonald’s and Wendy’s at a young age and started eating a lot,” Nolan said. “My parents got me involved with swimming because they thought it would be a good way to lose weight, and it’s evolved into so much more than that for me.”
Over time, he grew into the chiseled young man who finished his high school career with seven state championships (13 gold medals including relays) and left regarded as the best ever from Pennsylvania. When he graduated in 2011 from Hershey High School, he had established three National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) records in the 100 back, 100 freestyle (as the lead-off leg for Hershey’s state champion 400 freestyle relay), and the before-mentioned 200 IM.
His 200 IM time of 1:41.39 at the 2011 state meet was faster than his future Stanford teammate Austin Staab’s 1:41.57 last year that won him an NCAA title – and was three seconds faster than Olympic champions Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps’ best times at that age. At Pac-12s this year, Nolan won three individual titles and contributed to three relay titles to pace Stanford to its 31st consecutive Pac-12 (Pac-10 before this year) championship. A few weeks later at NCAAs, he earned two silver medals (100 and 200 backstrokes) and a bronze in the 200 individual medley as well as contributing to Stanford’s relays.
And while he admits he was a bit distracted last summer at the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships, where he finished fourth in the 200 IM, 12th in the 100 fly and 14th in the 100 back, he is focused for Olympic Trials next week in Omaha.
“My head wasn’t really in the game (at Nationals), but it was still a great experience that I will use this summer,” said Nolan, a biology major at Stanford. “When I was 14 and had a good Junior National meet, I started to really believe that I could do something special with swimming. Everything that has happened since has just reinforced that, and I’m really excited to swim in front of the thousands of fans at Trials and give it everything I have.”
4. Amanda Weir – Weeks, even months, before she stepped onto the blocks for her first event at the 2008 Olympic Trials, Amanda Weir was expecting disaster in the water. After swimming a blistering 53.58 in 2006 to shatter the American record in the 100 freestyle at the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships, expectations, both personal and from others, were at an all-time high for her to make her second Olympic team and lead female U.S. sprinters back to the top of the podium on the world’s biggest stage.
What happened instead gripped Weir’s psyche for months. She swam some of the worst races of her career and failed to make the Olympic team in any of her events – not even as a member of the 400 freestyle relay, for which she won a silver medal in Athens in 2004.
At the time, she said it felt like it was the worst thing that could have happened. But now, with time having passed and a new perspective guiding her in and out of the pool, Weir said she’s living and swimming with a much different attitude and outlook.
“Trying to pull it together at Olympic Trials after such inconsistent racing and preparing the two years before that was like watching a car wreck happen – and I think on some level, I knew it was going to be a disaster in the end,” she said. “I had a really hard time making the transition to professional swimming and dealing with the pressure. All of a sudden, I felt like I was swimming because it was my job, and people had all these expectations of me. I've since realized that the pressure is only coming from myself, and that being a professional athlete is really very simple: keep competing while its fun and opportunities are available, or move onto the next phase of my life.”
Now that a few years have passed and her vision is a little clearer about how and why things happened as they did, she said she knows she’s better for it. She doesn’t take her races as seriously, and a bad swim doesn’t ruin her week or weekend any more. And she’s ready for a redeeming, strong showing next week in Omaha.
“I am much more relaxed now,” said Weir, who is thinking about pursuing a future in interior design or art when she’s done with competitive swimming. “Before 2008, I would dread getting on the blocks; fearful of what it would do to me if I had a bad swim. Now it's pretty simple – if things don't go as planned, I'll just move on to the next phase of my life and I'm at peace with that.”
3. Chad La Tourette – It may seem like Chad La Tourette has been a swimming staple on the national and international scene for years and years, but in reality, that’s not completely true. His first international meet was less than five years ago at the 2007 World University Games, where he won gold in the 800 freestyle and established himself as someone to watch in the future.
And although he didn’t make the Olympic team at his first Trials in 2008, he said he left Omaha with a wealth of knowledge and experience that has served him well on the collegiate, national and international levels ever since.
“I remember that the meet (Trials) was unlike anything I’d ever been to physically and emotionally,” said La Tourette, who is nearing the end of his senior season at Stanford. “I regret not being able to relax before the bigger races. But in the last four years, I have gained a lot of confidence and become a lot better in both the physical and mental aspects of the sport.”
Considering he has grown up a big fan of the Olympics, La Tourette firmly believes that he has a great shot at making this year’s team and is looking forward to an exciting, fun meet in Omaha.
“When the games were on, I’d watch every single sport,” said La Tourette, who admits he became serious about swimming after breaking his leg playing soccer when he was 13. “I think I have a good shot at making the team. I will do my best to challenge for spots in the 400 and 1500, and we have some top world-ranked guys in each. Both races will be exciting to watch at Trials.”
2. Elizabeth Beisel – In case you blinked, Elizabeth Beisel, the phenom who made her first U.S. National and Mutual of Omaha Pan Pacific Championship teams at the tender age of 13, is all grown up. Now 19 (will turn 20 in August) and having just finished her sophomore year at the University of Florida, Beisel – an NCAA and World champion as well as Olympian – is a staple on the National team and a favorite to make her second Olympic team this summer in Omaha.
“Overall, it’s been an amazing experience,” said Beisel, who won her first individual world title last summer in the 400 IM. “To grow up with the transformation of a new era of swimmers and be a part of that group, I couldn’t imagine a better opportunity to grow and learn, not just in the pool. Being a member of teams at such a young age has really helped me find my own way and learn to handle expectations. I haven’t had to do it on my own, which has been great. I couldn’t imagine when I started out I’d be where I am, but it’s been a very fun experience.”
Less than a year since winning her first individual gold medal at Worlds last summer in Shanghai, Beisel said that meet, in particular, has raised her confidence to a new level because she finally had her breakthrough performance at a big international meet.
“I feel like I’ve finally made it, so to speak, because I had been close in the past at big meets but hadn’t performed like I knew I could,” said Beisel, who started swimming at age 5. “Winning that world championship title was a surreal moment for me, but it allowed me to believe that I can truly compete against anyone, anywhere.”
Already having fulfilled her dream of swimming in the Olympics, Beisel said she can now experience this summer’s Olympic Trials with a new perspective and objectivity.
“I was only 15 at Trials (in 2008), and I was so nervous most of the time,” said Beisel, who was the youngest member of the USA Swimming team in Beijing. “I remember sitting in the stands before the 400 IM final and crying with a Bluefish (Swim Club) teammate because I was so nervous. She calmed me down, and I had a very strong race (second to Julia Smit). That made me realize how much I wanted it, and I reflect back on that often because I still want it.
“When I looked up at the scoreboard and saw my name next to the number 2, and I knew I had made the team, it was a dream come true for me. This time, I want to soak everything in. The crowd in Omaha was amazing – you’ll never find a crowd like that anywhere – so I just want to feed off of that energy and have some amazing swims…and make the Olympic team, of course.”
1. Tyler Clary – It’s been nearly two years since Tyler Clary decided to forego his final season at the University of Michigan and “go pro.” Now, with the 2012 Olympic Trials next week and his goal of making his first Olympic team in full view, he’s more sure than ever that he made the right decision to put himself in the best position to fulfill his lifelong dream.
“It was definitely the right step for me, and now it’s time for the next step,” said Clary, who left Ann Arbor for Fullerton, Calif., to train with coaching legend Jon Urbanchek at Fullerton Aquatic Swim Team (FAST) in April 2010. “Some people were worried for me, but this time has allowed me to bring into focus my training for long course without having to also be concerned about classes.”
Almost four years ago at his first Olympic Trials, Clary came as close as someone possibly can to making the team when he finished third in the 200 backstroke behind Aaron Peirsol and Ryan Lochte. Clary said rather than concentrating on the disappointment of not making the team, he has spent the past three-plus years focusing on what he can change about his race and remembering Trials fondly rather than with bitterness or regret.
“I came very close, and it was difficult to accept for a short time, but so much has changed in my life and swimming now that I’m so excited to go back to Omaha and have new experiences,” Clary said. “How many times do you get to swim in front of 14,000 fans who know and love the sport of swimming? It was the first time I was exposed to a large-scale event like that, and since, I’ve been to Worlds, Pan Pacs, Mutual of Omaha Duel in the Pool and other big events, and I feel much more prepared and experienced.”
At Nationals that year, Clary finished second to Lochte in the 400 IM, and third in the 200 fly, 200 IM and 200 back. A month later at the Mutual of Omaha Pan Pacific Championships, he left Palo Alto, Calif., with three medals, all silver and all second to Lochte.
His swims qualified him to compete at the 2011 FINA World Championships, where he won silver (400 IM) and bronze (200 backstroke) medals – again behind Lochte. And despite so many close finishes behind his U.S. teammate, Clary said the two have a solid relationship and don’t let what happens in the water affect their friendship outside of it.
“I like him, he likes me, and we have no tension between us, although we are very competitive in the water,” Clary said. “People ask me about that, and it’s always funny to me because why do you have to not like someone to compete against him? That makes no sense to me.”
What does make perfect sense to Clary is his attitude and approach toward his swimming just four months away from the start of 2012 Trials.
“I haven’t trained this hard in a quite a long time, but I’m not training for Olympic Trials – I’m training for the Olympics. I haven’t had a problem making the big teams the past few years, and I don’t expect to have a problem at Trials. It’s my portal to London.”
Visit www.usaswimming.org/trials for full Olympic Trials coverage.