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By David Rieder.
On the sixth night of Olympic Trials last summer, Abbey Weitzeil had achieved her ultimate goal, the one she had put her life on hold for a year to pursue. She had made the Olympic team.
She had won the 100 free in 53.28, making her the second-fastest American of all time. Just 19 years old, she—not Simone Manuel—was the clear leader of an American sprint core seeking youth and explosiveness as it sought to overcome a recent stretch of Australian dominance.
She would go on to win the 50 free as well at Trials, and then Weitzeil won a gold and a silver medal on relays in Rio while making the final of the 100 free. Even if she took a small step back at the Olympics compared to her performances at Trials, her upward trajectory was clear.
One year after she made the Olympics, it was the final day of U.S. Nationals, Weitzeil found herself not on the World Championships team.
It’s not like she had been close, either. In her first swim of the meet, Weitzeil came into the 100 free as the No. 2 seed, and she faded all the way to 15th, her time of 55.48 more than two seconds slower than her personal best.
That evening, she was relegated to the consolation final. Her swim was better, as Weitzeil recorded a time of 54.99, but it was still nowhere close to the 54.35 it took to secure a spot in the top-six to make the World Champs team in the 400 free relay.
It was not the first rough moment in the pool during an all-around difficult year for Weitzeil.
After returning from Rio, she took the step in her life she had delayed to focus on the Olympics: She went to college. Migrating north to begin college at Cal-Berkeley meant huge lifestyle changes including living on her own for the first time, returning to school after a year off and switching coaches from Coley Stickels to Teri McKeever.
Katie Ledecky made that transition look so easy. But for 95 percent of swimmers—human beings, even—it’s not.
“Coming in to freshman year, it wasn’t the coaches at all—it wasn’t Teri,” Weitzeil said. “I knew it was going to be a rough transition. What I was doing with the coach I was with was working. Everything freshman year of college—everyone hears it—it’s hard.”
During that tough year, Weitzeil hit some bumps. She got sick during her first Pac-12 championships and could not finish the meet. She was among the favorites in both the 50 and 100-yard free at her first NCAA championships, but she ended up finishing fifth in the 50 and eighth in the 100. Three months later came that 100 free at Nationals.
Crushed, Weitzeil had no choice but to move on.
“The 100 was definitely not my best race,” she said. “It was pretty devastating not even making the A-final in that. I just wanted to keep my head held high. I had a lot of fun just trying to keep it light-hearted and cheer for my teammates and not dwell on it.
She had to sit through three full days of the meet before she would have another chance at one of her signature events, the 50 free. By that point, on the final day of racing, Weitzeil had tossed aside her expectations and reset her mindset, entering the race as though she had nothing to lose.
“I was more about having fun at this point and seeing what I could do the last night,” she said. “50 free is my favorite event, and I just wanted to see what I can do.”
The prelims race went well enough, as Weitzeil qualified third for the final in 25.00. And then, in the final women’s race of the meet that evening, Weitzeil finally put all the pieces together.
Manuel won the race in 24.27, and Weitzeil finished second. She touched in 24.74 to touch out Lia Neal by three hundredths. Both Kelsi Worrell and Olivia Smoliga were within a tenth of Weitzeil.
At that moment, that it had not been the smoothest year did not matter at all. Weitzeil was back, again a part of Team USA.
“I actually couldn’t see the board because my goggles were so foggy because I put them on so early before my race,” Weitzeil said. “Once I took them off, I saw the number ‘2’ was next to my name, and I was super, super excited.”
For sure, this summer’s major championship meet will look different for Weitzeil. There will be no 100 free, although she could still end up on the 400 free relay based on coaching decisions. The expectations won’t be sky-high this time.
But she made the team. After the way her week began, that’s about all Weitzeil could have asked for. At the end of the meet, Weitzeil donned her Team USA gear and walked out alongside the World Champs roster, and that made all the tough times worthwhile.
Watch Abbey Weitzeil’s full post-race interview below: