USA Swimming News

Monday, April 26, 2021

Five More to Watch in Omaha


Five More to Watch in Omaha

With the first weekend of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Swimming taking place in less than six weeks, let’s take a look at five more athletes to watch this year in Omaha. 

Gabby DeLoof (200-meter Free)
When 2020 Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 were postponed in 2020, Gabby DeLoof saw opportunity rather and disappointment. 

She saw opportunity to continue to train and improve for a delayed Games – improving her opportunities to make the team. 

She saw opportunity to relax and repair her body during the shutdown rather than lament about missing time in the water.

In a nutshell, DeLoof, a strong contender this summer to make her first Olympic team, chose to see her glass half full rather than half empty. 

“I have kept my head up and been grateful for all the opportunities that were given to me, and still are, to continue doing what I love during COVID-19,” she said. “I continue to move forward and have a positive attitude and mindset toward everything. Swimming has blessed me with many things but I feel I have become more grateful and have a better understanding and realization of everything.”

Leading up to 2020, DeLoof was definitely hitting her swim stride. 

She had made the 2019 FINA World Championship team – leaving South Korea with a silver medal as a member of the 800m freestyle relay team – along with a dominating performance at World University Games. 

In Naples, Italy, she won five gold medals – two individual (100m and 200m free) and three relays – and was on a roll. 

For DeLoof, it’s all been a calculated process to elevate her swim game since 2016 Olympic Trials and put herself in the best possible position for 2021. 

“I have grown a lot as my swimming career has progressed,” said DeLoof, who also made the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships team. “I was a late bloomer for the sport of swimming, but that made it all the more special to me. I didn't take the normal path that everyone else took to get to swim in college and after that. 

“I have loved every moment of training and racing throughout my college career, and I know that swimming is just one aspect of my life.”

With Olympic Trials in Omaha in just a few weeks, DeLoof continues to train hard and heavy allows and make sure she’s in the best possible position to contend for her first Olympic Team. 

“I go into each day of training with 110% attitude to get it done, because honestly it could be taken away at any given moment. I feel I am training very well and continuing to improve each and every day.”

Eric Knowles (400m Freestyle)
When he thinks back on his 2016 Olympic Trials experience, Eric Knowles remembers feelings of excitement mixed with a strong touch of anxiety. 

It being his first Trials – and having just made his time cuts the previous month – the future North Carolina State All-American gave it his best and left with a sense of satisfaction despite adding time to his lone event.

“The competition was unlike any other I had participated in, and I was extremely nervous,” said Knowles, who qualified in the 400 freestyle and 400 individual medley events. “My results showed as I added quite a bit of time in my event as both events I had qualified in were on the same day so I picked the 400 free. 

“It was one of those meets where I didn’t even feel bad about swimming slowly, because I was just excited to be there and watch everyone else swim.”

While he swam slower than he wanted to, Knowles said that ever since then his mentality has been to get used to those types of meets for Trials four years later.

And he has. 

He’s made steady improvement every season since, qualifying for the FINA World Junior Championships Team in 2017 and finishing as a three-time finalist at 2019 Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships. 

While this was happening, he also excelled for the Wolfpack swim team. 

As freshman, he qualified for NCAA Championships in three events (500-yard free, 400y IM and 1650y freestyle), and the following season, he garnered All-American status with a top-16 finish in the 1650 free. 

He was poised to do even more his junior year, and then COVID roared and his and every other collegiate swimmer’s season was abruptly cut short. 

He returned to N.C. State for his senior campaign, but came up short of making any individual finals at NCAAs, although he did swim on the Wolves’ fifth place 800y free relay. 

With Trials just a few weeks away, Knowles said he knows he will need to be much better in Omaha than he was at Nationals in 2019 to have a shot at making the team.

“Since I am still young and have a lot of room to improve, I’m definitely very excited about Trials and the opportunity I have to race with all the best athletes in the United States,” said Knowles, who is majoring in Materials Science and Engineering at N.C. State and plans to pursue his PhD in Materials Science. 

“I think making the Olympic team has always been an awesome idea to aim for, but prior to last year, I didn’t actually expect to be a threat at Trials. Making the team is one of those things where it’s now actually possible, but I don’t want to hang up all my hopes and dreams on it. I just want to focus on being the best swimmer I can be and maximizing any potential I have.”

Bella Sims (800m Freestyle)
Bella (full name Arabella) Sims learned from a very busy weekend at the TYR Pro Swim Series in San Antonio this past January. 

The 15-year-old – who was named to her first National Team in the 800m freestyle this year – competed in seven events over the course of four days (the bulk of it over three).

For her – and many other swimmers – San Antonio was the first long-course meet since March 2020 when COVID hit and everything shut down.

Sims' road to Omaha has been relatively short in terms of how long she’s actually been swimming. 
She didn’t start until she was 10 – less than six years ago – and it was after the 2016 Olympic Trials (which she said she didn’t watch on TV) that she really started training seriously. 

Despite this “newness” to swimming, she said she knew right away that one day she’d love to be an Olympian – something she said she thinks most swimmers dream about as youngsters. 

But it’s only been within the past year that she’s given her possibilities for Tokyo (or later) real credence. 

“It wasn’t until just recently that I even knew how close I am (to potentially making the Olympic team),” said Sims, who is home-schooled to accommodate her training and travel schedules. “Four-plus years ago before (2016) Trials, I was still just taking lessons. So, now to be in the talk about being a possible Olympian in 2021 or 2024 is nerve-wracking but also so exciting. 

“The Olympics has always been my goal, but being named to my first National Team provides extra motivation.”

Even with her new personal swimming revelations, Sims realizes her best events – the mid- and distance-freestyle events – are stacked competitively. 

Every day as a member of the Sandpipers of Nevada swim team, she competes against Erica Sullivan, who will be one of her top competitors for the second spot behind two-time Olympian Katie Ledecky in the 200m freestyle and up at Trials. 

In fact, it was at last November’s 2020 Toyota U.S. Open where Sims won the 800m freestyle against an impressive field that included Sullivan, Ally McHugh and 2021 Open Water Olympian Ashley Twichell. Her winning time was eight seconds faster than her entry time of 8:35.96.

That meet not only placed her on the National Team but catapulted her into the top contender echelon this summer in Omaha. 

“These will be my first Trials, so I’m really approaching it as an experience – an opportunity to learn,” said Sims, who will turn 16 before Trials start June 13. “If I swim fast and make the team, that will be awesome. But I really just want to experience everything about the meet.”

Trenton Julian (200m Butterfly)
As the progeny of swimming royalty – a father who was a National team swimmer and a mother who was an Olympic gold medalist – Trenton Julian grew up in the sport as a member of Rose Bowl Aquatics.  

So, it only made sense when it came time for him to get involved with some athletic endeavor, he gravitated toward the water. 

“Swimming started as something I would do to have fun and being good at it was a bonus,” said Julian, whose mother is 1996 Olympian Kristine Quance and dad is former National Team competitor Jeff Julian. 

“I started swimming around the age of five and never felt the pressure to swim well until I really realized how good my parents were, which was around the age of 10 or 11.”

Despite his lineage, Julian, who recently finished his senior campaign at the University of California-Berkeley with an individual NCAA title and several All-America honors, said he didn’t love the sport right away. 

Swimming wasn’t something he wanted to continue with, but then around age 14, he rediscovered a love for the sport and learned how to enjoy every part of it – including embracing his parents’ success. 

“For a long time, I knew my mom was really good, obviously seeing her gold medal and other people telling me how big of a deal that was and a few stories from her career,” he said. “I think both of my parents did everything they could when I was growing up, especially with how I did not have the same motivation that they had during their swimming careers.”

With his collegiate career behind him, Julian said he is looking forward to continuing to train and compete for his second Olympic Trials this summer in Omaha – a year later than he originally expected. 

After a trying year for everyone, he said what helped him handle everything associated with shutdowns and lost competitions focused on his mindset. 

He had to explain to himself that he wouldn’t be able to control much and that he had to be ready for whatever changes were thrown at him.

“I am very excited to be back in Omaha and race,” he said. “My experience from 2016 did not involve a lot of swimming. I had injured my shoulder and spent about two weeks before the meet trying to recover and heal enough to swim a 200 fly. 

“Being able to race in 2016 helped me learn a lot about my swimming and showed me what I needed to do to get to the level I wanted to be at.” 

Since those Trials in 2016, in addition to his NCAA training and meets at Cal, Julian also competed at the 2019 World University Games – where he won gold as a member of the 800m freestyle relay.

To him, WUGS was a great experience – his first international meet and his first time being a part of a National team with so many other talented swimmers. 

“This experience helped me understand what it was like racing in an international meet and representing my country, especially with understanding what I needed to do to prepare for the Olympic Trials,” said Julian, who will graduate from Cal this fall and plans to go pro after that.” 

Kaersten Meitz (400 free)
Kaersten Meitz never envisioned swimming competitively beyond the fall of 2017.

She was nearing the conclusion of her collegiate swim experience at Purdue University, and she figured that would be the end of her career.

Then, she made a big jump in long course at 2017 Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships – finishing fourth in the 400m freestyle, sixth in the 800m freestyle and 12th in the 200m freestyle against a loaded field – and made that summer’s World University Games team. 

Suffice it to say, her plans to retire were put on hold. 

“It opened my eyes to the possibilities and potential I have in swimming,” she said. “There was always a little voice in my head telling to continue to swim. I was still improving, and I loved the sport so much; the idea of retiring at the end of my NCAA career crushed me. 

“I didn’t want to look back years later and regret not giving 2020 a legitimate shot. After talking with my family, friends and coaches, it became clear what it was I really wanted to do, despite going against the typical career path for someone in a business-related major. Here we are in 2021, and I can confidently say I made the right decision.”

But Meitz’s swimming journey over the past couple of years – 2020 in particular – hasn’t evolved without its share of trials and tribulations, rewards and regrets.

Like everyone else around the globe, she was impacted by last year’s shutdown that closed pools and encouraged people to social distance and quarantine.  

“I was at the Olympic Training Center for a National Team camp when we got sent home early due to the shutdown,” said Meitz, who works part time as the Head of Business Development and Marketing at Barash Law LLC while also working on her MBA while training. “It was quite a whirlwind because we found out we needed to leave within the next 18 or so hours.”

She said while it’s undeniably been a strange year, the hardest part for her was not being able to compete for most of it. 

“Competing is the main reason I love the sport, so not having the opportunity to race consistently has been difficult,” said Meitz, who continues to train with Boilermaker Aquatics. “But if anything, this year has only increased my motivation because making an Olympic team seems to more of a possibility than ever before.”

And she’s expecting a much different Trials experience this year than five years ago for a variety of reasons. 

“Back in 2016, I was just happy to be there,” Meitz said. “At the time, I didn’t plan on continuing my swimming career post-grad, so I am really excited to head back to Omaha and have a chance to experience those same thrilling moments. 

“This time around it will surely be a very different feel. Now that I am vying for a spot on the team, the stakes are higher.”

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