Tuesday, April 20, 2021
Five to Watch in Omaha
With U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Swimming less than two months away, let’s take a look at five swimmers who are poised to make an impact in Omaha.
These are five top contenders to make the 2021 Olympic Team.
Michael Chadwick (50 free)
Aside from hitting a few laps in the small pool behind his house from time to time, like everyone else during this ongoing pandemic, Michael Chadwick wasn’t able to swim last year in the early days of the pandemic.
He continued to exercise and lift when he could, but for the most part, Chadwick decided to use this “time off” from heavy training and competition to recharge, relax and reflect on what this all means for him in the greater scheme of things and the world of swimming.
“As we focused on being ready for Trials, we all had to embrace our selfish nature and soul search how far we were prepared to go to compete at our highest levels,” said Chadwick, who is now training in his home state with North Carolina Aquatic Club.
“When the pandemic hit, we all had the opportunity to reset and reflect on what this means as well accept what happened and how we chose to approach the rest of 2020.”
While he was disappointed he had to wait a year for a second shot at his first Olympic team (he finished sixth in the 50 freestyle at 2016 Trials), Chadwick said a lot of athletes tend to see their best swims the year after the Olympics.
If that’s true, this year should be stellar for the entire U.S. team.
“It’s important to me that I took time to rest last year – how many other times were we going to get that opportunity?” said Chadwick, who was riding a high into 2020 after winning five medals (two gold, a silver and two bronze) at 2019 Pan American Games.
“My body was pretty broken down prior to the shutdown from months of hard training. My shoulder, hip and joints were all feeling the effects, and the pandemic gave them time to repair, so I took time to heal before resuming training in the summer. Now, I feel recharged and ready for Trials.”
Chadwick returned to competition this past January at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Richmond, Va., where he finished third in the 50-meter freestyle and second in the 100 free. Last weekend in Mission Viejo, he finished ninth in the 50 free and fifth in the 100 free.
Charlotte Hook (200 fly)
While many athletes across the world were disappointed and disheartened when 2020 Trials were postponed last year, National Team member Charlotte Hook felt differently.
Instead of despair, she felt a sincere sense of relief.
Even though she was feeling good about her swimming, she was glad to have another year to get stronger and faster before competing in her first Trials in Omaha in a couple of months.
“I had a little bit of a rough year in terms of figuring out the right schedule for my training and some other issues unrelated to swimming and saw this as a sort of ‘do-over’ to improve and to be in a better place than I was last year,” said Hook, the third-youngest member (17) member of this year’s U.S. National Team.
“With it being my first Trials, I’m definitely nervous but also super excited to experience that sort of hyped-up atmosphere. I’ve never attended Trials as a spectator either so the experience of it all will be totally new for me.”
When she was able to return to swimming after pools were shut down in early 2020, Hook said she came back with a much greater appreciation for every aspect of swimming – from her coaches to the facilities to her teammates.
“I was definitely worried initially with getting out of shape and how long it would take to get back in shape, but with everything being canceled, I came to accept that I couldn’t control the situation and it would be ok in the end,” she said.
Hook earned her stripes in the sport as a 14-year-old when she competed at 2018 U.S. Nationals.
A year later at Nationals, she swam some of her best times and earned a spot on the 2019 Junior World Championship team as well as her first U.S. National team with a ninth-place finish in the 200 butterfly.
Subsequently, she earned a spot on the team headed to Budapest for the 2019 FINA World Junior Championships, and in her first big international meet, she earned the bronze medal in the 200 fly.
As a result of that meet, she said she learned what swimming for something bigger than her feels like and thinking about Omaha/Tokyo and the chance to do it again remains a great motivator.
“It’s a feeling that is difficult to beat,” she said. “Even though my swim at World Juniors wasn’t a best time, I was so thrilled to be there, to experience racing in an arena like that and to represent the United States.”
Annie Lazor (100/200 breast)
If you’ve been watching swimming over the past couple of years, you know that Annie Lazor has been dominant in the pool.
In fact, at two TYR Pro Swim Series events – Knoxville and Des Moines – in the early part of 2020, she won the 200 breaststroke and put up some of the fastest times in the world. This came on the heels of her winning both the 100 and 200 breast events last summer at the Pan American Games.
Earlier this month at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Mission Viejo, she was runner-up in the 200 and third in the 100 breast events behind Olympic champion Lilly King.
When COVID-19 happened and the world shut down last year, her pool was closed, and she and her fellow professionals were denied special permission to continue to train there.
They drove an hour and 45 minutes to the nearest pool each day, and everything became very real.
“I remember having a moment of weakness talking to Cody (Miller) when we arrived and realizing it was our new ‘normal’ for the time being,” she said. “He assured me that we would acclimate, we were doing everything we could while the Olympic Games were still scheduled as planned and the level of commitment we showed by doing that drive every day was unmatched.”
When it was announced that the Olympics – and subsequently U.S. Olympic Trials – would be postponed until 2021, Lazor said she initially found it difficult not to feel robbed in some way.
But after giving it some thought and reflection, she realized if she was swimming then, why couldn’t she be swimming as fast or even faster now?
Lazor ultimately decided that everyone else in the swimming world was going through the same thing, and that she would use the extra time to improve and continue her upward trajectory.
Now, just a couple of months away from her third Olympic Trials, she feels ready and eager to compete.
She said she believes having a strong core and endurance will always translate to the pool.
“I came out of retirement and back to the sport wanting to give everything I had to it, and without fear of any regrets later in life. I would never want to look back on this uncertain time during my career without being certain I gave this sport everything I had.”
Justin Wright (200 fly)
If you crossed paths with Justin Wright on the street, his physical presence and appearance wouldn’t necessarily scream world-class swimmer.
At 5-foot-7, he doesn’t command the physical attention of towering giants Michael Phelps, Matt Grevers or Cullen Jones.
Wright knows he would largely go unnoticed, possibly written off as a computer geek or mild-mannered reporter – dark-rimmed glasses and all.
But like Clark Kent, once he removes his glasses and shirt, he reveals a swimmer’s physique and even deeper, a champion’s mentality.
Because of this inner drive to prove that “little guys” can be sports gods, too, Wright made the decision to go pro in 2018 – and he’s never regretted it.
“Halfway through my senior year, I knew I had to make a decision at some point, whether to take a chance and go pro or stop swimming and do something else,” he said. “If I had waited until the end of my senior year or later, I knew I would need to get an actual job, and I didn’t need any more distractions. It turned out to be a fairly easy decision in the end.”
He went to Irvine, Calif., later that same year and won his first National championship in the 200 butterfly.
Considering that as a young swimmer he was unsure if his future beyond college would involve competitive swimming, let alone professional swimming, he definitely proved he made the right decision.
“That win more than solidified my decision to go pro,” said Wright, who finished fifth in the 200 fly at 2016 Trials. “Any doubts that I may have still had that I could make this a success were gone after I touched the wall first at Nationals. I needed the pressure of doing it for a living to really push me to want to prove I made the right decision.
“Growing up, I never considered swimming professionally, and in my early swimming life, getting a scholarship and competing in college never really seemed possible. But going into my senior year, I started to consider more and more that I still had more to prove in my swimming.”
Erica Sullivan (400/800/1500 free)
Erica Sullivan has experienced her fair share of growing pains over the past few years.
It began when her father passed away in 2017. He had been her mentor, her friend, her biggest cheerleader for her entire career, and within three months of being diagnosed with esophageal cancer, he was gone.
Shortly after that, she came out as gay, and the combination of her dad’s death, being outed and swimming at a highly stressful level was overwhelming for her.
Her mental health suffered, but she remained true to herself throughout, persevered and discovered that, just like swimming, life is tough, unpredictable and not always fun – but hard work and commitment ultimately pay off.
“After he passed, it was hard for a really long time,” she said. “I know he wanted me to keep training through a lot of it. So I did. And I made the National Team for the first time four weeks after he passed. So that’s a really nice feeling. Like, ‘hey, look what I did.’ I’d like to think he’d be proud of me where I am right now.”
Between 2017 and 2019, she swam her way into a National Championship in the 5K at Open Water U.S. Nationals and qualified for 2019 Open Water World Championships and crept her way into the top-5 in the United States in both the 800 and 1500 freestyle events in the pool.
Before COVID shut down pools and the world at large this past March, Sullivan was well on her way to being a force at Olympic Trials last summer and possibly earning a spot on her first Olympic team – particularly with her best event, the 1500 free, being a new Olympic event in 2020.
Sullivan said the ultimate decision to wait until 2021 to select the U.S. Olympic team and hold the Games in Japan didn’t come as a surprise.
She was ready for it.
“I think we all saw it coming because they were waiting for so long,” said Sullivan, who has dreamed of being an Olympian since she began swimming. “And it was a will they, won’t they kind of thing. When it was canceled, we were all like, ‘ok, yeah this is happening.’
“But believe it or not, this extra year has been tough. I have struggled a lot with it. But, at the end of the day, everyone’s struggling and it’s just a different date to push back on our calendars. And Tokyo 2021 – let’s throw down.”
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