By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Every four years at the Olympic Trials, there are more new faces in the water than familiar ones, and this year in Omaha, that will once again be the case. Here are five who could make a big splash – and potentially the 2012 Olympic Team.
5. Bonnie Brandon – Less than a year removed from making the 2011 Pan American Games team – and winning a silver medal in the 200 backstroke – Bonnie Brandon is ready to make her move this summer at Olympic Trials.
Soon to be a high school graduate, Brandon, who is bound for the University of Arizona this fall, intends to prove she’s more than “the other swimmer” from Colorado hoping to make this year’s Olympic team.
An avid hunter (she’s had her own gun since she was young and hunts often with her father), Brandon’s prey this summer will come in several events, but the 200 back is definitely her strongest event.
Earlier this spring, she set Colorado records in the 200 individual medley and 500 freestyle at the state swimming meet – setting several records in the process. In the 500 free, she shaved more than eight seconds off the state record she set two years ago as a sophomore. She also helped her team sweep the two freestyle relays – finishing her career with 14 state championships, seven individually.
4 Will Copeland – The date May 21, 2007 will forever be burned into Will Copeland’s mind as a day that changed his life in and out of the water forever. Born with pectus excavatum, or sunken chest in layman’s terms, Copeland elected to have a specialized surgery done to correct the problem – improving his chances of being a contender for a future Olympic team.
While he admits the short-term pain from the procedure was often excruciating – full recovery took three months – the gain has been well worth it. He’s now one of the fastest sprinters in the United States and world.
With Olympic Trials just more than a month away, Copeland is counting on that gain to make his first Olympic team. Copeland said he believes his best opportunity to make the Olympic team is in the 100 freestyle, where the top 6 finishers make the 400 freestyle relay team.
“My expectations are simply to do as well as I can,” said Copeland, who learned to swim in the pool in his backyard as a youngster growing up in Virginia and swam on his first team at age 8. “Times don’t really matter at this point. It’s all about place. But I’m not going to worry about that either. If I go compete and try my hardest and enjoy the experience, it doesn’t matter the outcome. I’ll be happy.”
3. Rachel Zilinskas – Every time she sees a commercial promoting this summer’s Olympic Games, Rachel Zilinskas gets chills. A fan since she was a young girl, Zilinskas is feeling particularly excited this year because, despite being just a junior in high school, she’s put herself among the favorites to make the U.S. squad heading to compete in London.
Even two years ago, this opportunity seemed nearly unfathomable to her. But through a dedication to her sport – which involved moving four hours away from her home and father, sister and brother for better training and coaching – and desire to succeed, she is right in the mix.
To say it’s a dream come true to be where she is right now would be a gross understatement.
“It would mean everything to me to make the Olympic Team this summer,” said Zilinskas, who is a top contender in the 800 freestyle based on her fourth-place finish last summer at the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships. She will also compete in the 400 free and 400 individual medley, and possibly others.
She put herself in the best possible position a couple of years ago by moving four hours from home to train and go to school at the prestigious Germantown Academy – home of numerous Olympians and national champions.
With her first Trials quickly approaching, Zilinskas said she is as ready as she’ll ever be and her coach has prepped her accurately even though she doesn’t know what to expect other than some very fast, smart swims from herself.
“I am only 17, and I hope to have a long future ahead of me in the sport, but I am expecting to be up there fighting for a spot (at Trials),” Zilinskas said.
2. Matt Patton – Three years removed from the conclusion of his career at Michigan and four since just missing making the 2008 Olympic Team (fourth in the 200 fly), Matt Patton has been concentrating on improving his technique and making sure his stroke is more efficient and powerful.
“I try to make changes throughout practice to make sure that I'm using the stroke that I want to use in my race,” said Patton, who has an identical twin brother, Sean. “Other than that, just pushing through the pain and trying my best at every practice.”
Patton’s course to swimming success has had many peaks – gold in the 400 freestyle at 2007 Pan American Games and silver in the same event four years later – but he’s poised and ready to take the next step: London this summer.
1. Caitlin Leverenz – When she arrived at the University of California-Berkeley as a heralded recruit her freshman year, Leverenz received a figurative yet motivational kick in the butt from Bears Head Coach Teri McKeever. Based on the past two-plus years under her tutelage, Leverenz has definitely experienced the results and continued success she was looking for.
“Teri was exactly what I needed because she took a genuine interest in me and has continuously found ways to motivate me, to push me even when I don’t want to be pushed,” Leverenz said. “I’ve made great strides under Teri’s guidance. She has embraced the way I need to train, and she’s helped me realize things about my training and my body that have taken me to the next level.”
Last summer at Worlds in Shanghai, she made the finals in both the 200 and 400 individual medley events but left with no medals. Several months later in Atlanta at the Mutual of Omaha Duel in the Pool, she won the 200 IM and finished second in the 400 IM. A little more than a week earlier, also in Atlanta at the AT&T Winter National Championships, she doubled-up with wins in both IM events.
Just over three years removed from what she calls a “disappointing but educational” experience at 2008 Olympic Trials – where she finished third in the 200 breaststroke and fourth in both IM events to miss making her first Olympic team – Leverenz said she feels more ready than ever to swim fast this summer in Omaha.
“Those were my first Trials, and I was pretty nervous and wasn’t sure what to expect, I’ve definitely grown a lot since then, both as a person and as a swimmer,” who hails from Tucson, Ariz. “Looking back, it’s really ok the way things happened because it was a great learning experience.
“One thing I’ve realized is that, for me, swimming isn’t about making the Olympic team; I do it because I love the sport and I love the opportunity to swim for my country. Now, there are so many more and bigger reasons for me to swim, and that has resulted in better, faster swims.”