By Mike Watkins Correspondent
It was just a few years ago that Breeja Larson was swimming largely in anonymity.
She didn't focus solely on swimming or even train year-round until age 17 – choosing to play multiple sports rather than concentrate on one.
When it came time for college recruiting, that hurt her. She was lightly recruited because she’d only been swimming full-time for less than a year and didn't have much of a swimming pedigree.
Fast forward to 2012 when she upset world and Olympic champion Rebecca Soni to make the Olympic team headed for London, followed by winning both the 100 and 200 breaststroke events last summer at the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships, and Larson is no longer an unknown commodity.
In fact, now when she steps on the blocks, everyone – including herself – expects fast swims and wins.
“I love playing all the sports, and I never wanted to settle on one because that meant I couldn't play the others,” said Larson, who finished her career with three straight NCAA titles in the 100 breast before graduating from Texas A&M this past May.
“But my junior year of high school, I realized that I would be paying my own way through college, and athletics were my best bet for a scholarship. So I thought long and hard and decided that swimming was the way to go. I feel like I came into college swimming very fresh in the sport and excited, with the last thing I had to worry about was burn out. I feel like that was a big advantage for me.”
That “freshness” paid dividends for Larson at 2012 Olympic Trials.
While she said she went into the meet confident based on her NCAA Championship a few months earlier, she also said she felt little to no pressure.
The result was a spot on the U.S. Olympic team and an eventual finals swim in the 100 breast a few weeks later in London.
“After I won NCAAs in the 100 breast, I thought I really stood a fighting chance,” said Larson, who finished second in the 100 and 200 breaststrokes her freshman year. “I put all my hope and motivation into making the (Olympic) team, not letting myself doubt for a second that I would make it. I figured I would be bummed whether or not I truly thought I would, so I went all in and made myself believe that I would.”
Larson’s story to swimming stardom began with humble roots. When other programs looked past her in high school, Texas A&M Coach Steve Bultman saw great potential in her with a little tweaking.
And while her first semester was “extremely raw,” Bultman and his coaches spent time refining her starts and kick and by the end of her sophomore season, she was an NCAA champion.
“Steve has built me into the swimmer I am today,” Larson said. “He was very careful with my training, especially at the beginning. I want to say he almost babied me a bit, and I needed it. I did not have the base training of 10 years or more like a lot of swimmers, who go into college swimming.
“He allowed me to struggle when I needed to but also made sure I went at slow enough intervals so I had enough rest during swim sets. He was very patient with my progress and ignorance to the sport. The breaststroke sets he gives us help us pace our races and finish strong, and he always sees room for improvement.”
Bultman said, in the beginning, she was like a piece of talented clay that just needed molding. Because she had never done dryland training or weights, they focused her first semester on building her strength – without doing a lot of work in the water.
He combined her out-of-water work with in-pool training and coaching, and within a couple of months, Bultman said the changes were visible and rather significant.
“She’s fearless,” Bultman said following the 2012 Olympic Trials. “She’s not afraid to get in the water and race anyone. It doesn't matter who she is or what she’s accomplished – Breeja is excited to compete.
“What made her successful pretty much right away was that she bought into what we had in mind for her and embraced the work we knew it would take to get her where she could be.”
Larson accurately attributes most of what she has accomplished to her club coach Brad Hering and Bultman.
“Brad was my first club coach and really the first coach to help grow my passion for swimming,” said Larson, the American record holder (yards) in the 100 breaststroke. “He made me believe that I could do anything I set my mind to. Brad got my heart and mind set for the road I'm traveling now.
“And Steve gave me a chance of a lifetime to be coached by him and swim for such an incredible program and school at Texas A&M. Steve coached me through all the difficult swim sets and critiqued my breaststroke so it would work for me. Even now, he is constantly helping me improve my stroke every day. I trust Steve more than anyone when it comes to my swimming and getting me prepared for what I want to accomplish in this sport.”
Now, less than a couple of weeks away from defending her titles at the Phillips 66 National Championships, Larson said she is feeling great and ready to race.
Having already fulfilled her dream of swimming in the Olympics (although when she was younger, she thought she would make the Olympic team in gymnastics), Larson said she is ready to take that next step and win her first individual international medal. She won gold at the 2012 Olympics as a member of the 400 medley relay team.
“I feel like I gain more confidence with each experience,” said Larson, the second-oldest of seven girls in her family. “This is my fifth year swimming, and I feel like I'm on the right track. I just have to stay focused, have fun, and not think about the outcome, but just the race itself.”
And what does she have planned beyond this summer, particularly as she looks toward 2016 Trials and the Rio de Janeiro Olympics?
Larson said she plans to stay and train with Bultman at least until 2016 and then see where things go after that.
“I have an amazing coach, incredible training partners, and tons of resources here in College Station, TX,” said Larson, who said the biggest improvement she has made over the past couple of years is her ability to hold her breath for longer distances between strokes. “I would be crazy to leave before then.
“I still have a lot of goals I want to accomplish. The destinations of swim meets worldwide are very exciting, and swimming gives me a free ticket there. Also, the excitement of little swimmers who get to see the collegiate or professional swimmers race is always fun. I like being a role model for young swimmers, so sometimes when I'm in a slump and have a hard time staying motivated, I'll just look at my goal times, or messages from other swimmers and it's a good pick-me-up for the week.”