Breeja Larson: An All-American Sweetheart

Breeja
Photo Courtesy: Madison Kyler

By Tera Bradham, Swimming World Intern

“I know what it is to be a struggling college student. I’ve been there,” she nods.

She really has been there. Growing up in a family with six sisters, Breeja Larson never knew what it was to have excess, even once she was a student-athlete in college.

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Photo Courtesy: Breeja Larson

Now that she’s a professional athlete, she has a little more leeway. Yet instead of spending her paycheck on herself, she gets balloons for her coach’s induction into the Coaching Hall of Fame and makes blankets for her professors.

Most recognize Larson as the American record holder in the 50 and 100 breaststroke, or as part of the Olympic Gold medal-winning 4×100 medley relay. More casually, some recognize her as the six-foot machine towering over her competitors, with ripped muscles and a classy smile on her face.

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Photo Courtesy: Kara Sekenski

But most would not recognize Larson as the girl who volunteers to sew her teammates’ suits when the seams unravel, who steps down from the block to hug her competitor who just false started, and who offers stroke advice to teammates on a daily basis. Larson’s generosity is a part of who she is, as is her selflessness, great sense of humor, and caring heart.

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Photo Courtesy: Andy Ringgold/Aringo Photos

“Wherever I am in the world, I need to present myself with dignity and respect,” Larson asserts. “First, I represent myself and my family, then I represent Texas A&M, and now, I represent the United States of America. That can be intimidating, but it is such an honor. I always want to be seen as a wholesome role model who is respected.”

Larson may be a sweetheart outside of the pool, but when the buzzer signals a race, she transforms into a formidable competitor. Training with the Texas A&M women’s team under head coach Steve Bultman, Larson certainly is not at a loss to assert her competitive nature.

Her teammates comprise one of the best breaststroke groups in the country, including Bethany Galat, who placed tenth at NCAAs in the 100 breast as a freshman, Jorie Caneta, a recent transfer and former Junior Pan Pac member in the 100 breast, Esther Gonzalez, the Mexican record holder in the 200-meter breast, Sycerika McMahon, an Irish breaststroke Olympian, Franko Jonker, a sub-minute 100 breaststroker who represented South Africa at the World University Games last summer, and Ashley McGregor, a Canadian whose 200 breast time would have placed her third at American Olympic Trials in 2012. Occasional additions to the group include 400 IM national champion Sarah Henry and freshman Pan Pacific team member Sydney Pickrem, among other dangerous Aggie IMers.

Ashley McGregor and Breeja Larson relax before their 100 breaststroke heats.

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

With such steady competition in practice, it could be easy to let competition get the better of her. But instead, Larson hosts potluck “breaststroke group” breakfasts at her house to strengthen the bonds between teammates.

“There’s competitive, and then there’s overreacting,” Larson explains. “Just be happy for teammates when they push you or achieve something great. Once you join a team, you’re part of a family, so respect that family.”

With the Olympics rapidly approaching, Larson says she wouldn’t want to be training with anyone else. When asked if she had anything to say to aspiring swimmers, Larson thought for a moment.

“Don’t be intimidated by us (Olympians). We’re just swimmers who have been to a different meet,” she says emphatically. “If you’re racing us, we both qualified for the same meet. The pool is just as wet, the pool is just as long, we both have worked hard, we both know how to race. You have every bit as equal a chance to make the team as we do.”

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“Easy for me to say, I know,” she laughs. “But it’s true. And that’s exactly what Steve told me before I was in that position at Olympic Trials three years ago.”

That moment three years ago catapulted Larson to the world stage that is currently her stomping ground. But it wasn’t always that easy.

When she joined Arizona Mesa Aquatics her senior year of high school (where a scholarship program enabled her to join the club team), she went from four hours of swimming practice a week to four hours of training a day. The transition was brutal, but that little girl who cartwheeled across her lawn dreaming of becoming an Olympic gymnast still lived somewhere in the core of the woman who now swam laps in a pool.

“I just knew I was going to work really hard and go to the Olympics,” Larson says of her childhood. “When I found out I was too tall to be a gymnast, it was like finding out Santa Claus wasn’t real.”

Little did she know that the path of life would take her to the Olympics through another avenue. One who had always loved weight training, the supplemental pool training she found at Texas A&M combined with her work ethic to launch Larson to an NCAA victory her sophomore year, which she defended and retained each year of her collegiate career.

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Photo Courtesy: Breeja Larson

Still continuing to improve each year, Larson claims she isn’t anywhere close to tiring of the sport that has given her so much.

“I’m probably going to swim until I can’t anymore,” she chuckles.

Her journey to success is a unique road full of ups and downs, laughter and tears, victories and losses, surprises and twists in the plot, but Breeja Larson’s blossoming career has only just begun. The complexities of her story only demonstrate the power of the human will and the generosity of a sport that gives to any who are willing to receive the lessons it has to offer.

In the upcoming months and years, one thing is certain: Breeja Larson is one swimmer for whom you will want to shout and cheer.

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

6 comments

  1. avatar
    Josh Davis

    Breeja is a great ambassador for the sport and for our country! Way to go!

    • avatar
      Dunc1952

      She is … and as it is not unlike yours, Josh, it means something for you to recognize her contribution. Thanks to both of you.

  2. avatar

    Any truth to rumor she’s moving to Cleveland to train for Okymoics?

  3. avatar
    Maria

    Greetings from Mesa, Arizona.

  4. avatar
    Danyelle Parker

    100% class act and an amazing ambassador for swimming! Had the pleasure of meeting her in person, and she’s truly a sweetheart! Cannot wait to see her future unfold.

  5. avatar
    T Hill

    Nice article!
    Very down to earth person. Relates well with younger swimmers as well. Did a great stroke clinic & banquet talk with our Shark swim team- Tx. Wish her the best in 2016