Claire Curzan Oblivious to Limits in Rapid Rise to Prominence

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Claire Curzan -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Claire Curzan Oblivious to Limits in Rapid Rise to Prominence

(From April’s Swimming World Magazine)

Claire Curzan has been swimming fast since she was a young age grouper and has continued to do so in high school. In March, she came within 13 hundredths of the American record in the short course 100 fly, and in April, she found herself within 22 hundredths of the long course U.S. best. She’s versatile, she’s coachable, she has international experience, and she’s moved from a fringe Olympic contender to an Olympic favorite. Curzan is only 16, and her promising future couldn’t be brighter.

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For years, Claire Curzan has been recognized as one of the most impressive young swimmers in the country. She has been consistently setting national age group records in butterfly, backstroke and freestyle events since she was 12, and in the summer of 2019, she earned some acclaim by finishing second in the 100-meter back and fifth in the 100 fly at U.S. Nationals. At the World Junior Championships a few weeks later, Curzan won four medals: silver in the 100 back, bronze in the 50 fly and 100 fly and gold on the U.S. women’s 400 medley relay.

In February 2020, Curzan broke a pair of national high school records in the 100-yard fly and 100 back while representing Cardinal Gibbons High School at North Carolina’s high school state championships. She was a high school sophomore at that point, only 15.

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Claire Curzan — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Anyone who has followed Curzan’s career could see her special potential quite clearly, but then the COVID-19 hiatus came and competition came to a halt. As soon as Curzan returned to competition, she was already one of the best sprint butterflyers in the world.

At a July 2020 intrasquad meet, Curzan’s first competitive foray in four months, she swam a 50.03 in the short course 100 fly, making her the eighth-fastest swimmer in history. A few weeks later, she swam under 50 seconds for the first time. By March 2021, Curzan had nearly taken down the American record. She swam a 49.51, just off Erika Brown’s record of 49.38, and good for fifth-fastest all-time in the event.


Curzan Can Swim Long Course, Too

Well, sure, that’s just short course yards, but over the course of several months, Curzan rapidly proved herself in the big pool, too.

Pre-COVID, her 100-meter fly best time was 57.87, but in the fall of 2020, she dropped to 57.57 and then, at the U.S. Open in November, to 56.61. Suddenly, the 16-year-old had vaulted herself into a three-way tie for 12th-fastest all-time in the 100 fly, sharing that spot with the likes of 2000 Olympic gold medalist Inge de Bruijn, and third-fastest ever among Americans behind only 2012 Olympic gold medalist Dana Vollmer and 2016 Olympian Kelsi Dahlia. It was the fastest time any American swimmer had posted since 2018.

“The whole week of training before, I wasn’t really feeling that great in the water,” Curzan said. “I felt kind of heavy, and then in warm-up, my fly felt amazing. I didn’t know I was taking it out as fast as I did. I was just kind of sticking to my race plan and just going off the adrenaline,” Curzan said. “I was just kind of shocked. A little tinkling in the back of my head told me that I could go that fast, but I didn’t really believe it until I looked up and saw it. It was just one of those races where it’s kind of out-of-body.”

But Curzan was not done showing her cards quite yet. In April, while racing against fellow teenage star Torri Huske in the 100 fly at a meet in her home pool in Cary, N.C., Curzan dropped her best time to a stunning 56.20, a performance that reverberated around the swimming world. She moved to eighth all-time in the event and became the second-fastest American ever, ahead of Dahlia.

“I thought I could go 56, 56-mid or high. I don’t know. I was not expecting that,” Curzan said. The immediate aftermath of the swim left Curzan in a state of almost shock, and it took a little while for the impact of her effort to sink in. “I didn’t know I could go that fast. I didn’t know I could drop that much again.”

With just a few quick performances, the Olympics had become much more than a dream. Now, Curzan will go to June’s U.S. Olympic Trials firmly in the spotlight. Her best time is now just two tenths off Vollmer’s American record (55.98), and having dropped more than a second in the last year, it’s not crazy to think she could make that leap. She has already swum quicker than the silver medal-winning time from the 2019 World Championships.

And, yeah, she’s still just 16 years old!


The Coach’s Perspective

At the TAC Titans, Curzan’s coach is Bruce Marchionda, and Curzan remembers Marchionda telling her after the Greensboro meet “how I don’t have to go that much faster to make the Olympic team.”

“Her workouts leading up to that swim indicated that she could go that fast,” Marchionda said. “Whether she would or not, I had no idea, but based on her workouts, I knew that was definitely a possibility. For her, when she did, that gave her confidence in what we are doing and belief in the system that we have put in place for all of our swimmers, not just her. I say, kind of jokingly, the negative of that is it does put a lot of pressure on someone.”

Marchionda called Curzan “probably one of the most coachable athletes that I’ve coached in the last 30 years.” He complimented the 16-year-old’s ability to take feedback and make stroke changes, including in her head position while breathing in butterfly. She consistently brings a positive attitude and competitiveness to practices that benefits the entire group.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, she shows up with a smile on her face and maintains that smile throughout the workout,” Marchionda said.

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Claire Curzan — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

In practice, Curzan likes working her underwaters, already a strength of hers, and she enjoys opportunities for off-the-blocks all-out efforts. Long, aerobic swimming and repeated fast efforts on short rest, on the other hand, are not her favorite. Right before sets that she is not thrilled about, Curzan “will look at you with those sad, puppy-dog eyes, like, ‘I have to do this?’” Marchionda said. “And then she’ll turn around and do it…and crush it.”

One resource Curzan has available to her is Claire Donahue, a 2012 Olympian in the 100 fly who Marchionda coached at Western Kentucky. Donahue has helped Curzan with keeping her emotions in check and keeping a professional approach to swimming and reminding her that swimming is still swimming, even when the stakes are ratcheted up. To keep her nerves in check during a meet, Curzan likes to go over her races in her head so that she feels less daunted.

And to her credit, Marchionda thinks Curzan has handled the tension of the upcoming Olympic push impeccably.

“The pressure never really rattles her,” Marchionda said. “I think it’s something that she believes she can do, that she can compete with the best in the world. We have worked on the idea that, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to compete with the best swimmers in the world.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, you are one of the best swimmers in the world.’ Getting that confidence and believing that you belong there just kind of fell into place and took kind of a natural process as her progress continued to move forward.”


More Than a 100 Flyer

In addition to her efforts in the 100 fly that have thrust her into the world spotlight, Curzan should be in the mix in several other events at Olympic Trials. At the April meet, she swam a time of 59.37 in the 100-meter back that thrust her up into a tie for 12th-fastest American all-time in the event and sixth among Americans since 2018. Curzan should be in the mix for a spot in the final of the event at Olympic Trials, although it would take another huge jump to overcome some of the stellar talent in backstroke and qualify for the U.S. team in that event.

Curzan also swam a 54.40 in the 100 free, and with another drop, she could be in the mix to qualify for the 400 free relay at the Olympics. She also swam a 24.44 in the 50 free, but was disqualified for going past 15 meters underwater on the start.

As for the 200 fly and some other longer events, Curzan prefers to avoid those when she can. When she swims her favored sprint races, she likes to remind herself that it’s not the 200 fly to get herself excited. She remembered one meet where she swam the 500-yard free and realized midway through the race how thankful she was to not have to swim that event very often.

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Claire Curzan — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“I got to the 300 mark, and I was like, ‘I’m so happy I’m a sprinter. I don’t know how people do it,’” Curzan said. “The 500 short course is not even bad, but it just makes me appreciate distance swimmers that much more. Their training is so hard, and their events are long, and I just don’t know how they do it. It just made me happy that I’m a sprinter.”

These days, swimming is Curzan’s only significant in-person commitment, with her school entirely online for the entire year. When she’s not at practice or doing school work, Curzan has one go-to hobby: “I’m a big reader,” she said. “If I’m bored and I have a good book, that’s always a fun way to pass time.”

In the coming months, she will make some college very happy when she announces her verbal commitment, but Curzan said she is in no rush to make that decision. Curzan has two siblings, younger sister, Kate (11), and older brother, Sean (18), and both she and Sean are looking at colleges at the same time, which she called “kind of weird.” On her relationship with her siblings, Curzan said, “We’re kind of all best friends. We make fun of each other because that’s what siblings do, but, you know, all the love.”


Claire Curzan Enjoying the Grind

Over the last year, Curzan’s commitment and dedication to swimming have launched her career to new heights, maybe a little earlier than expected, but her passion for swimming is not simply end result-focused. While she admitted that sometimes the thought of the Olympics “will come up and surprise me,” she tries to focus more on the process of the season, and that’s what is most exciting for her. Even as she has piled up impressive accomplishments so close to Olympic Trials, she has been able to shrug off the pressure by staying process-focused.

“I just kind of have a love of the water and just a love of working hard,” Curzan said. “I enjoy the feeling of kind of pushing your body until failure. It kind of sounds weird, but I enjoy the grind, and just being able to see the grind pay off is kind of cool.”

As she has been grinding away at training and racing, the world has had no choice but to take notice. Many elite swimmers only swim close to their best a few times per year, but the youthful Curzan has reached the point where every time she is in the pool, she has the capability of pulling off something astounding. Along the way, Curzan has quickly forced her way firmly into Olympic contention with the biggest swim meet of her life quickly approaching.