Friday, May 7, 2021
Five Athletes to Look For in Omaha
U.S. Olympic Trials – Swimming is getting closer and closer as each week passes.
Four weeks from today (Friday), the first Wave of competitors descends upon Omaha with the remaining contenders arriving the following weekend – all with one goal: to make the 2021 Olympic Team.
Before time flies even more, let’s take a look at 5 more athletes to watch next month in Omaha.
Emily Escobedo (100/200 breast)
Last year was supposed to be big for Emily Escobedo.
She was set to marry her fiancé, Andrew, in August. She was well on her way to completing her master’s degree and primed for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Swimming.
And then the pandemic happened – and most everything she was looking forward to was postponed.
While the majority of the world hit pause, she postponed her wedding until August of this year and completed her second-to-last semester of graduate school before taking the winter semester off to focus on training for Olympic Trials.
She’s postponed her wedding until August of this year, and she completed her second-to-last semester of graduate school before taking this semester off to focus on training for Olympic Trials.
Ultimately, this year’s Trials will most likely be her last opportunity to compete at the Olympics and fulfill a dream she’s had since she was little.
“I already have my post-swimming path in progress – studying to teach special education classes, getting married, starting a family, etc. – and I don’t think I will have the time to devote to swimming,” she said. “I have to make the most of this opportunity.”
Based on her results over the past few years, Escobedo has proven that she is someone to be reckoned with this summer in her signature 200 breaststroke event.
Earlier this year at the January TYR Pro Swim Series in Richmond, Escobedo won both the 100 and 200 breaststroke events – beating Olympic and World Champion Lilly King in the process.
She also set personal bests in all of her short-course meter events with the NY Breakers in the International Swimming League, including posting the top American and third-best time in the world (at that point) in the 200 breast.
In December 2019 at the Toyota U.S. Open, she beat a loaded field that included King, Pan American Games gold medalist Annie Lazor and the Olympic duo of Melanie Margalis and Micah Sumrall. Her time of 2:22 set a U.S. Open meet record.
“That race gave me so much confidence and really made me believe that I can be right there with the best swimmers at Trials this summer – that I belonged,” said Escobedo, who competed at 2012 Trials but didn’t make it out of preliminaries. Four years later at 2016 Trials, she made the semifinals and just missed making the finals.
“The year before at Winter Nationals, I finished second in the 200 breast, but this meet really made me believe that I can compete with anyone.”
A late bloomer, being competitive with the best swimmers in the United States and world wasn’t on Escobedo’s radar until the past quadrennial.
Now, her name is near the top of the list of contenders for Tokyo.
“It’s really a very exciting time for me in my personal and professional life as well as with my swimming,” she said. “I can’t wait to see what this summer brings, but I’m also ready to start the next phase of my life, so whatever happens at Trials, it’s going to be win-win for me. Every day now is a dream come true.”
Alex Walsh (200 back, 200 IM)
As the big sister and more seasoned swimmer, Alex Walsh has always enjoyed training with younger sister and fellow U.S. National team member, Gretchen.
It’s something the sisters–separated by 18 months but just a year in school–started when they were very young and resumed several years ago when they became part of the same practice group at Nashville Aquatic Club.
It’s also something they did during the pandemic while their club pool was closed.
They were able to do some limited training/swimming in their neighbor’s backyard pool – pushing each other while supporting one another’s goals and dreams.
“It’s nice to have a training partner, someone who holds you accountable and you can also hold accountable, especially when she’s your sister,” said Alex, who finished her freshman season at Virginia this spring. “We’ve always looked out for each other, in and out of the pool, and that also means we’re competitive with each other. Fortunately, we compete in different events.”
The Walsh sisters will challenge that close relationship this fall when Gretchen joins her in Charlottesville in fall 2021.
Before then, however, they are hoping they will get to swim together in a different pool and in a different country – at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
It’s a dream they’ve shared since they started swimming as youngsters.
“That dream has really become more of an opportunity over the past few years; before that, we talked about it, but it didn’t feel real,” Alex said. “Now, with both of us on the National Team and swimming fast, we were both feeling confident about Trials this summer.
Alex – who brought home three gold medals (two individual, one relay) from the 2019 Pan American Games and was a double gold medalist at 2018 Junior Pan Pacific Championships – is more than ready to contend in Omaha next month and will be rooting on Gretchen since they don’t swim the same events.
Jake Mitchell (400/800 free)
Five years ago, as a soon-to-be high school freshman, Jake Mitchell watched the 2016 Olympic Trials from the stands – cheering on his older Carmel Swim Club (IN) teammates who were competing.
This year, the soon-to-be University of Michigan sophomore, is excited to compete in first Trials as a contender to make the Olympic team headed to Tokyo.
‘In 2016, I was not very close to any Olympic Trials standards, but seeing the athletes get selected for the Olympic team was a huge motivator,” said Mitchell, now a member of the U.S. National Team.
“I specifically remember talking to my friend after the first night of finals and telling him, ‘I have to be here in 4 years.’ I've been holding onto that feeling of excitement ever since, and it has without a doubt helped me get to the spot I'm in right now.”
Over the few years, Mitchell has been taking the necessary, incremental steps to prepare himself for the spectacle and magnitude of Trials.
In 2019, he finished second in the 400 free and fifth in the 1500 free, along with strong swims in the 200 free and 400 individual medley at Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships.
A few weeks later, he competed at Junior World Championships in Budapest (his first international team and trip), and while he didn’t medal in any of his individual events, he won a gold medal as a member of the 800 freestyle relay team.
With Trials just over a month away, he said he realizes there’s a huge difference between being a spectator and now being a top contender.
“I am most excited for the energy that the meet (Trials) and the venue have,” he said. “Going to Trials to watch was such an incredible experience, and I am looking forward to actually competing this time around. From Junior Nationals to Nationals to Junior Worlds and now a season at Michigan, I have learned a lot that will help me when I get to Trials.”
“I do think that having the Olympics delayed will benefit me. I always see practices as opportunities to get better, so having the extra year to train and prepare for Trials was definitely beneficial.”
Emma Weyant (400 Individual Medley)
A year removed from what was shaping up to be a big year has Emma Weyant sitting at the precipice of achieving her Olympic dream.
After graduating high school in 2020, putting together a terrific club career with the Sarasota Sharks. She originally committed to Virginia, but would later defer the commitment by a year to train for Trials this June. Now, she is ready to take the next step toward earning a spot on her first Olympic team.
For Weyant, it’s all part of the journey to fulfilling dreams she’s had since she was little.
“I know that I will be in the best position if I focus on my own race and hit all the details,” she said. “Being able to touch the wall first or second will be all about just getting in there and racing alongside some incredible athletes.”
In 2016, Weyant missed making Trials time cuts until two weeks after the meet was over.
So, while she watched that meet on TV from her home in Sarasota, Fla., five years ago, she will be making her first trip to the CHI Health Center in Omaha next month to compete against some of the world’s best swimmers.
“My team had a fairly large group of kids qualify for the (2016) meet, and I remember we did a big sendoff for them,” she said. “That inspired me to want to be part of that group in the future.”
Since then, Weyant has more than made up for it, excelling internationally and nationally.
The young lady who started swimming when she was 8 is now not only a Junior Pan Pacific Championships gold medalist but also a 2019 National Champion – both in the 400 individual medley.
Needless to say, the past few years have been more than a fun ride – and it’s been a ride that she hopes might just end up taking her to Tokyo.
“Junior Pan Pacs was not only my first time representing my country internationally, but it was the first time I had ever traveled oversees,” Weyant said. “Having the first stamp on my passport be Fiji is pretty cool.
“This meet gave me my first exposure to the culture of team USA and how being in an environment with such high-achieving people and athletes motivates you to swim your absolute fastest.”
Weyant added that, while competing at Junior Pan Pacs was great from an international perspective, winning her first national title in 2019 was more pivotal in some ways.
While it also fueled her confidence, it stoked her passion for the sport and proved to her that she can compete right alongside the best senior-level swimmers around.
She knows that will only pay more dividends once she takes the blocks for her first and best event – the 400 IM – at Trials next month.
“Winning my first national title proved to myself in that race that believing in yourself and taking risks pays off,” she said. “Swimming in a heat full of such talented swimmers helped me stay motivated and made the racing aspect even more fun.
“Although this will be my first Trials, I don’t think my expectations will vary greatly from other big meets that I’ve been successful at. While I do have some big goals I want to accomplish, I have to remember to trust in my training and swim to the best of my ability on race day.”
Kaitlyn Dobler (100 breast)
Growing up, Kaitlyn Dobler dreamed of being two things – an astronaut and an Olympian.
During her freshman year as an All-American at the University of Southern California, she’s already taken her first educational steps toward making a future in space a reality.
As for accomplishing the Olympian part of her dream, Dobler is just a month away from taking her first step at Olympic Trials.
And based on the past few years she’s had leading up to Omaha, she knows she’s close to realizing that dream – but if it doesn’t happen this year, she knows it’s well within reach.
“Even if I don’t make this year’s team, I know I have the 2024 Trials to try again, so I’m going into the meet in Omaha with very little pressure,” said Dobler, who is majoring in mechanical engineering at USC and then wants to study aerospace engineering in graduate school. “But, of course, I’d really love to make this year’s team. It will be exciting.”
A relative newcomer to the National and international swimming scene – she won multiple medals at 2019 FINA World Junior Championships and then followed that up with a second-place finish in the 100 breaststroke at Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships – Dobler has really only allowed herself to believe she can make the Olympic team within the past couple of years.
“I think every kid dreams of one day making the Olympic team, and I am no exception to that,” she said. “I didn’t make Trials cuts for the 2016 meet, so this will be my first Trials, and I’m excited to experience it all.
“I know it’s going to be a bit overwhelming, and I will be awestruck competing against swimmers I grew up idolizing. But I’m really looking forward to being there.”
And while she hasn’t been to – or competed in – Trials yet, Dobler said she knows her recent experience and exposure to some of the best in her events is preparing her for what’s still to come.
“That realization has helped me know that they are normal people who may be larger than life in the pool but are down-to-earth people you can have a conversation with just like anyone else,” she said.
Dobler feels more legitimate than ever as a top-caliber swimmer and embraces the expectations that come with that.
“The past few years have been really fantastic for me, and I’m incredibly grateful to everyone – my parents, my coaches and my teammates – in my life who has helped me get to this point in my swimming. I couldn’t have accomplished any of this without them.
“I’ve seen some strong improvements in my swimming over this time, and my time drops within the past couple of years, especially in the 200 breaststroke, have really given me the confidence I know I will need to compete at Trials.”
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