By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
After she finished third in two separate events and missed her opportunity to swim at the London Olympic Games in 2012, Elizabeth Pelton sought out the advice of friends.
These weren’t just any friends. These were fellow swimmers who had also come within tenths of a second and a single spot to miss making an Olympic team. They included Eric Shanteau, Brendan Hansen and Natalie Coughlin, among others.
Not only did they help soften the blow by helping Pelton accept her results, but they also helped her realize swimming and athletics are cyclical and often about second chances – and hers would come four years later.
“Growing up, my goal was always to make the Olympic Team, and to come so close not once but twice was incredibly hard to take,” said Pelton, who finished third in both the 200 backstroke and 200 individual medley in 2012. “I went into the meet gung ho and convinced it was going to happen for me, and when it didn’t, it was kind of a nightmare.
“I spoke to Eric, Brendan and Natalie about how they handled coming so close in the past, and they all said ‘Look where we are now.’ There was one common factor among the group and that was they were all eventually Olympic medalists, and that’s what I want. In retrospect, it was honestly a blessing because missing making the team forced me to find different gears and rediscover my passion for swimming.”
Pelton took some time off from swimming following Trials, and moved to Berkeley, Calif., in August 2012 to start her college career. Being on her own and working with Teri McKeever jump-started her motivation moving forward, and she went on to have the best year of her young swimming career.
She ended her freshman season with an NCAA title and American record in the 200-yard backstroke and finished second in both the 200 IM and 200 freestyle events.
Several months later, she earned a spot on the 2013 World Championship team with second-place finishes in both the 100 and 200 back events as well as earning a spot on the 400 free relay with a sixth-place finish in the 100 freestyle.
In Barcelona a month later, she won two gold medals as a member of the 400 medley and 400 freestyle relays, and finished fourth in the 100 and fifth in the 200 backstrokes, respectively.
Needless to say, Pelton came back to start her sophomore season last fall rejuvenated and excited to see where she could still take her swimming – and she said she owes a lot of her recent success to McKeever.
“I trust Teri with everything; she’s really my life coach as well as my swimming coach,” said Pelton, who hails from Baltimore, Md. “She really saved me coming out of Trials in 2012 and helped me find my love and passion for swimming. She came into my life at the perfect time, and I love working with her. She’s amazing.”
But Pelton’s path from high school phenom to Olympic hopeful didn’t happen overnight.
She started swimming as a five year old with the Lakeland Lightening Swim Club even though it was team policy not to let swimmers on the team until they were 6.
With an older brother who swims and parents who were both accomplished swimmers (dad, Greg, swam at Pittsburgh and was an Olympic Trials competitor; mom, Anne, swam through high school), it was no surprise that she took to the water right away. She also has a younger brother who swims.
“They gave us bagels after every practice, and we got to swim outside; that’s all I needed at that age to motivate me to come to practice,” Pelton said with a laugh. “But I loved swimming right away. Still do.”
Now a sophomore with the Bears, Pelton said she is soaking in this year and how much fun and success she and her teammates are having. They recently won the Pac 12 Championships, and any time you have someone like Missy Franklin on your team, Pelton said her day is that much brighter.
‘Things are really exciting at practice, and being under the spotlight more this year has raised the bar of expectations,” Pelton said. “Missy is so cool, and training together has been great because we push each other in a non-competitive way. She’s refreshing to talk to, and she has such a great attitude. She makes coming to practice fun, but then again, all my teammates do that.”
A business major, Pelton is looking forward to another try at making the Olympic Team in two-plus years at Trials back in Omaha.
And because the start of Trials in 2016 coincides with the completion of her senior year at Cal, she said she’s not ready to think that far ahead. She’s enjoying her college experience too much.
But she does recognize that thinking about and beginning to prepare for Trials now will put her in that much better position when the time comes for her to make her third Olympic bid.
“Right now, I’m focused on NCAA Championships in two weeks and then spring and summer meets leading up to Nationals this summer and making the Pan Pacific Championships team,” said Pelton, who made her first World Championships team in 2009 as a 16-year-old and won a silver medal in the 200 backstroke as a member of the 2010 Mutual of Omaha Pan Pacific Championship team.
“This year and the next two will be stepping stones to make sure I’m in the best position to make the team in 2016. Making that Olympic team is still elusive, but I know as long as I do everything I can to make it happen, that’s all I can ask of myself.”