By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
The men's and women's open water Nationals at Fort Myers this weekend will feature some of the country's, and world's, best swimmers. The women's meet has the most competitive field it has so far, and among those to watch is Ashley Twichell, who talks about the sport, Fran Crippen, her open-water teammates, and how the sport has grown and been administered the past year in this week's 20 Question Tuesday.
1. You sound a bit tired?
Ashley: I just talked to my parents and heard the same thing -- I don’t know why, though I have been awake since 7 this morning.
2. Maybe since you swam again this morning (Sunday) in the mile at the Fran Crippen meet at Mission Viejo?
Ashley: It is really exciting at that meet. All the parents and fans are coming up to talk to me about open water. Everyone is so excited about open water coming up this week at Fort Myers! Everyone is so into it, even though it is still a relatively new part of the sport. This interest has taken things to a whole new level. I think London will do even more amazing things for open water.
3. Fran Crippen’s legacy lives on in the sport, both here and abroad – he loved it, didn’t he?
Ashley: He did. He loved the sport and embodied the sport and every aspect of competition. Two of his sisters, Claire and Maddy, are both in town, and so is Maddy’s husband, Sean. To spend time with them and feel their energy, and their work to make open water safer, is just so inspiring.
4. You received a grant from Fran’s foundation – that makes it more personal to you, doesn’t it?
Ashley: Yes, and I have a cool story relating to Fran: Coach Rose gave me the option of doing a 5k time trial in our practice on Tuesday. Normally we just do it, but we had just gotten back Monday from a three-week altitude training camp in Colorado. That morning (Tuesday, April 17), Coach said, “See how you feel, and decide if you want to do it this afternoon.” I was pretty tired. And then I realized it was Fran’s birthday – that was a sign I had to do it. Fran would have done it, too; he was with me. Christine Jennings did part of it with me, for about 3,000, and I had 2,000 left alone. But I was never alone. I had 40 laps left, and all the little kids, who had practice coming up, cheered me on, and were so excited. They congratulated me with the Mission Viejo cheer when I was done.
5. So ironic that last year you were finishing at Duke and had no idea what open water was!
Ashley: Like when I talked to you before, it really was a leap of faith to move to an area I didn’t know, didn’t know the people, or the program. Yet it has been everything I could have imagined, and so much more.
6. Isn’t that funny, and you end up at Fran’s club?
Ashley: My first day on the team here I remember walking into the pool, and here are kids ages 3 to post-grad, and I am someone who grew up with a club team that had maybe 30 kids. But even with all these people, it’s such an amazing atmosphere, and a feeling of support among everyone. Of course we have Chloe Sutton and Christine and Brooke Lorentzen, but we have a lot more, too. Chad LaTourette came back to train when he finished at Stanford. The energy these people bring is incredible, and motivating.
7. How much have you learned about open water from all the actual race experience you’ve had the past year?
Ashley: For sure, in open water, every race you do, you learn something new. I have only done the sport for a year, but I have learned so much. Plus I have a teammate like Chloe Sutton, who was an Olympian in 2008 in open water and just an incredible talent, and she gives me insight from the races she has swum, and what’s gone well, and what has not. Let me tell you something from recently: Chloe and I have gotten to be close out here, but it became an even stronger friendship when we roomed together for three weeks in Colorado; I mean, we were not apart for more than a half hour. She is such an incredible person. To have someone like that, where we have the competition in the pool but the friendship outside of it – and in it, too – has helped me out a lot, especially with her perspective on different aspects of open water swimming.
8. What do you think of Fort Myers?
Ashley: I did the open water select camp right before Nationals and it was actually in that lake. They have a nice, six-loop course, so each lap is a little shorter than I am used to – but I am actually excited about that. When I do 10k races where there are four laps, I tend to get a little bored, so the shorter laps will make it more interesting, and there are more bench marks to see where you are along the way. I love Florida; I have competed there a lot, and I am looking forward to seeing both of my parents, who will be there along with two of my brothers.
9. You, Eva Fabian, Haley Anderson, Emily Brunemann, Claire Thompson, Christine, the list goes on and on – what a GREAT field for this race?
Ashley: Exactly. People ask me, who is your biggest competitor. There is not just one. There will be seven or eight girls right there fighting for two spots.
10. You got to know Haley Anderson too, didn’t you?
Ashley: Haley is awesome. We roomed together too once, and she was so fun. She must have read (laughs) three of the Harry Potter books while we were there as did Eva! And of course we watched the movies as well! I am also really close to Claire because she swam her first three years at South Carolina, so we swam dual meets together.
11. All of those women you just mentioned are simply amazing people and great swimmers, aren’t they?
Ashley: It’s unique because we are good friends, but also competitors. But I would never trade friendships with these amazing women – that’s what has made this past year in the sport mean so much. We will be competitors in the water, but outside of the water I hope to stay in touch with them all the rest of my life. I am so excited to see them this weekend.
12. There is just so much new and veteran talent – good for the sport, isn’t it, and it’s the same way on the men’s side with Alex Meyer and others, right?
Ashley: Yes, and I should mention what a great friend and person Emily Brunemann is to me, and all she has done in this sport. In fact, when Alex got hurt on the bike a few months ago, I got a text from Emily telling me what had happened, and I sent a text to Alex. Of course he sent me these pictures with stitches on his face, his eye pushed in, and I was so worried about him. What has happened is that this sport has brought together these people and we have this amazing community, and I just feel so fortunate to know these overachievers, who are also great people, and have them in my life. And by the way, Alex will be ready for the Olympics!
13. All your road trips internationally the past year – a whirlwind, but those competitions have helped you, haven’t they?
Ashley: Definitely. I have been so lucky to have raced now in China, London and Brazil and most recently, South Africa. Every race is different, and every race provided me with a different experience. At the 10k in South Africa I swam alone almost the entire way, and that was good for me, because it is mentally tough to do that and to push myself when I wasn’t pushed. I need to start a scrapbook, because this has been a whirlwind but I am going to want to have all these memories when I get older.
14. You mentioned Eva fondly – she’s something special, isn’t she?
Ashley: She really and truly is. Eva brought her violin to China. She reminds me how important it is to have balance in my life. Swimming is huge for all of us, but you can’t have it be the end all, be all. Eva shows that balance with such class, grace and dignity. She’s going to Yale next year, too. She has a great perspective, and is a great swimmer.
15. Last year at open water, you didn’t even know you’d made the National team! This year’s a bit different, isn’t it?
Ashley: Yeah, you know (laughs) it is what it is. But I have known what is coming up for this year, and it is, as you said, so different for me now, to go from not knowing the consequences from where I had placed when I got out of the water, to what is on the line now. This race will be different. But you know what? Every race is different. All the experience I have from the past year has shaped me, and taught me so much. Whatever happens, will happen. I have confidence in myself, and training is going extremely well.
16. Hey, no one knows but Bill Rose is actually really hilarious when he wants to be, isn’t he?
Ashley: Yes he is! He is constantly telling jokes throughout practice. A lot of people have this pre-conceived notion that he is super tough, and he does push us to reach our max potential, but he really is that funny. He gets a little offended (laughs) when at 6 a.m. we don’t laugh at his jokes! But he has an awesome sense of humor. That is part of how he forms such important, strong relationships with swimmers.
17. You mentioned Fran’s presence at the pool – what’s that like?
Ashley: Definitely, at this meet, you can feel the energy. Posters of him are at the pool, of him teaching kids. Every night, when they play the National Anthem, they have kids that swim down the length of the pool, and several have flags, while one has a picture of Fran. It was very emotional to honor him, and remember him.
18. You mentioned Brazil and China and South Africa, but you also learned a bit from your National Team trip to Mexico, right?
Ashley: Mexico was a pool meet in October, and yes, it’s really good going to an international meet, because you have to be willing to accept and adapt to things that happen – just like you do in an open water race. In Brazil, for example, when they told us the bus would leave in 10 minutes, it might be 10, or 30 – that’s just how it varies among cultures. I’m pretty laid back as a person, but for people who like being on a schedule, that takes some patience. With London being an English speaking country, and the upcoming meet in Florida this week, there are fewer stresses and worries – you don’t have to expect the unexpected as much, but you still have to be prepared to adapt.
19. I know Bryce Elser has done a very good job at USA Swimming – how has the sport been handled from an administrative point of view the past year since you have been involved.
Ashley: Definitely, it’s awesome that open water has become more and more popular but also more and more supported. Before, there were two different sports, but now, even pool swimmers support those of us in open water, and the administration at USA Swimming has had a lot to do with that. Bryce is amazing – we all admire and respect him, and love to travel with him. We got to see him in Colorado Springs, and it’s good to stay in touch and keep communicating. I think another big thing USA Swimming has done is promote open water swimming, which has helped grow the sport even more.
20. So you started this great journey when we talked last year, and here we are, on the brink of the meet that will determine which two go to Portugal to try and earn one open water spot for the U.S. in London – how fast did this time pass?
Ashley: It really does go fast. Actually, last week at practice, Coach Rose made the comment, “You have been here a year already.” I thought, “No I haven’t.” It hasn’t felt like that at all. I have been so fortunate to do so much traveling and have so much fun. While I have been on the move a lot, I have found a home here in California and am really comfortable here. I love everything about swimming out here, and I have made some great friends. The coaches have been unbelievable. My host family literally could not have been better. It’s just crazy to think how this all happened. I step back for a moment and think about how lucky I have been, and the great experiences I have had. I have Fran supporting me through his foundation and his family, and a program out here that is just great. So I have a few more things to add to the list to be thankful for this year.