By John Lohn
GILLETTE, New Jersey, December 10. AT this time of year, children all over the world are revealing their Christmas wishes to the big guy in red. Erika Erndl, as a 34-year-old defying age in the pool, isn't a kid anymore. Nonetheless, she has a wish at the top of her personal-goal list, and it revolves around a trip to Barcelona next summer.
The sport has been jam-packed with terrific storylines over the past year, from the exit of Michael Phelps into retirement to the numerous comeback tales dotting the aquatic landscape. Of late, much of the spotlight has been on the exploits of high schoolers, Ryan Murphy and Jack Conger, two youngsters who seem to be can't-miss-stars in the making for the United States.
Amid these superb storylines, one hasn't received the attention it deserves. While we all know about the legacy of Dara Torres, the ageless wonder who won three silver medals as a 41-year-old at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Erndl has done her own turning back Father Time. As we prepare for the calendar to flip into 2013, Erndl is a contender to represent the United States at the World Championships next summer in Barcelona.
During her first go-round, as Erika Acuff (maiden name), Erndl was a multi-event standout who went on to enjoy a fine career at the University of North Carolina. There were appearances at the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Trials, but her aim of qualifying for the Olympic Games wasn't meant to be. Ultimately, Erndl walked away from the sport.
Now, she's knocking down lifetime-best performances and looking every bit capable of making a second international squad, complementing her appearance at the 2011 edition of the Pan American Games. Like many athletes in the sport, the itch to return to the water grabbed Erndl a little more than five years ago. The difference for Erndl is the way she is producing best times and, as the clich? goes, getting better with age.
“Getting back into the pool was really not a plan, but I'm glad that it happened,” Erndl said last week. “I took about five years off after I graduated from UNC in 2001 and became a first grade teacher. I started swimming again just for exercise when my husband, Kevin, began coaching our masters team. I went to a meet and was frustrated by my performances because I felt that I was capable of so much more. Around that time, a friend of ours had made a comeback himself after suffering from Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, competing in the World Championship for Triathlon. Watching Mike compete after what he went through with his health motivated me to make a comeback and I knew that it was now or never. At first I just wanted to qualify for Trials in 2008 but I swam well and I was enjoying it so I decided to keep going. I figured that I was getting faster and having a lot of fun, so I've continued to train and compete and set goals for myself.”
The frustration Erndl experienced during the early stages of her comeback hasn't endured. Rather, the Southeastern Pennsylvania native has watched her efforts continue to improve. In 2011, she was ranked 41st in the world in the 100 freestyle. This year, she's globally ranked in the 50 and 100 freestyles, her times faster than the previous year, and also ranked in the 100 butterfly (40th) and 200 individual medley (47th). Meanwhile, she tore it up at the recent Short Course Nationals.
At Nationals at the University of Texas, Erndl was second in the 200 freestyle, sixth in the 100 freestyle and eighth in the 50 freestyle. Those three appearances in championship finals were punctuated by Masters records for her age group (30-34) and generated hope that come the long-course campaign, Erndl will be in a position to advance to the World Champs.
“I have some personal time goals that I am working towards each day,” she said. “I would like to represent the U.S. on an international stage again. Swimming at the Pan American Games in 2011 was an incredible experience that I know I am capable of experiencing again. Being selected for the 2013 World Championship Team is certainly on my radar. With that being said, I just want to do the best that I can do and enjoy the opportunity to race at an elite level. Whatever happens after that is a bonus.”
Now representing T2 Aquatics in Florida, Erndl has been flourishing under the guidance of Paul Yetter, the man who molded Katie Hoff and Elizabeth Pelton into world-class competitors. With Yetter, who possesses an appreciation for the sport's history, Erndl has become faster than ever. Erndl credits Yetter with the ability to read his athletes and recognize their specific needs. More, he has convinced Erndl of achieving feats that she previously thought were untouchable. A deep trust has developed between the pair and Erndl's confidence is soaring.
There is no doubt that Erndl must navigate a deep and talented field en route to her goal of qualifying for the World Champs. She'll be squaring off with the likes of Missy Franklin and Allison Schmitt in the freestyles, among others in the fly and medley. But if there is one thing Erndl has on her side, it's this: She's continuing to get faster, hardly slowed by age. The confidence she is carrying from seeing quicker and quicker times cannot be underestimated.
Beyond the competitive angle, Erndl is succeeding in the same fashion as Torres. She is shining proof that age is just a number and though it will climb, it doesn't mean you must slow down. Simply put, anyone watching Erndl swim and digesting what she has accomplished should be inspired.
“People tell me that what I'm doing is inspiring to a lot of people and I appreciate that,” she said. “I get satisfaction from motivating others whether it's kids on my team or my fellow masters swimmers. Sometimes I need to be reminded that what I'm doing isn't really typical because it's what I live every day. I certainly get a lot of personal satisfaction from swimming fast, but it's not just about that for me. My personal goals are high, so when I perform well I enjoy it but it typically fuels me to accomplish something greater.
“I look at every day as an opportunity to improve. I value my time as an athlete and know how to take care of myself and to make the most of everything that I do. I've learned how to make my age an asset rather than view it as a disadvantage. I know my body well and I am willing to push myself to the limit whenever I need to. I am mentally and physically tougher and I am able to do things that I never used to do. I've also lived without swimming and I have a husband of nearly nine years so I think I have a different perspective on being an athlete at a high level.”