Journey to Olympic Trials: Fourth Time’s A Charm

Column by Jeff Commings

PHOENIX, Arizona, July 19. TEN days ago, I qualified to swim the 100 breaststroke at the U.S. Olympic Trials as a 37-year-old. Yes, you read that correctly: I am 37 years old. I can't believe it, either.

You'll have to get used to the sight of people in their 30s competing at the Olympic Trials. Jenny Thompson and about a half dozen others in their 30s swam at the 2004 Trials, and in 2008, there were five such swimmers by my count. With 11 months to go before the first race in Omaha, we've got seven people in their 30s already on the list of participants. That should grow by at least two, as Janet Evans and Josh Davis have publicly announced their desires to race at the Trials. I'm thrilled to be in such an elite group of people about to compete at the most elite meet in the country.

The first step on this journey to Omaha happened two years ago, as I was reading a draft of my book "Odd Man Out: An Autobiography." I paused at the chapter where I described the experience of swimming in first Olympic Trials, way back in 1992. To say that day in Indianapolis was disastrous is an understatement. Long story short, I went into physical and mental meltdown. I swam two seconds slower than my best time, and didn't make the finals despite being the fourth seed.

I wondered if it was possible to get another opportunity to swim at the Trials, to shake off the demons of 1992 (as well as 1996, when I swam just as miserably). This time, I knew I would have no shot at making the Olympic team, and would just soak up the atmosphere and have fun. I wanted a Trials experience I wasn't loathe to relive during dinner party conversation.

Now I have that chance. On July 9, I swam a 1:04.42 to beat the qualifying standard in the 100 breast by .27 seconds. When I saw the time displayed on the scoreboard at the Brophy Sports Complex, I felt more relieved than excited. I was on my third taper in three months and my fourth attempt at qualifying in a span of three weeks.

My first two attempts were at the Southwest Classic in Tucson, Ariz., and in the prelims, I swam a 1:04.76, just .07 off the cut. It was the first time under 1:05 for me as a Masters swimmer, so I was happy about that achievement, and confident I could drop the needed tenth of a second in finals. But I got flustered in the final when I saw Marcus Titus almost a body length ahead of me after 25 meters. Thirty years of racing experience did nothing to calm my fears that I was swimming too slow, and I overswam my first 50 meters, trying to catch up. I had nothing left in the final 25, and could only muster a 1:05.37. As I warmed down later, I thought, "Oh, well, I gave it my best shot." I had no plans to try again to make the cut.

But that evening, I talked to my coach, Mark Rankin, and one of the first questions he asked was "When do you want to try again?" I thought about it for a couple of days, finally agreeing to make another go at it, though I was worried that I wouldn't be able to swim faster on my third taper. (My first taper was for the U.S. Masters national championships in late April.)

In the three weeks leading up to the Arizona senior state championships, I focused on race planning and execution. I knew I needed to swim under 34.5 seconds in my final 50 meters of the race to have a shot at the cut. To get my muscles prepared for that, I did a lot of push 50s, usually with freestylers or backstrokers swimming in the lane next to me for extra motivation. I also got help from viewing underwater footage of my start. Takahisa Ide, a great Japanese coach who has worked with more than a few champion swimmers, noticed that my head was too low when I entered the water, causing drag. Figuring that the correction would chip at least two tenths off my time, I did starts every day to fix the issue.

When July 9 arrived, my body felt sluggish. I was fearful I had overtapered, but my fast swims in warmup felt better than expected. Mentally, I was excited and had the support of hundreds of Facebook friends and dozens of Masters teammates energizing me in the final minutes before my prelim swim. I knew I couldn't hold back on any part of the race, and feared the pain awaiting me at 85 meters. But I also knew that the race would take a total of 44 strokes in 64 seconds. Surely I could hold on for 44 strokes.

Racing conditions weren't ideal. The weather was pushing 105 degrees in Phoenix at 11 a.m., and the heat made cooling the water difficult. I estimated the water temperature to be 82 degrees, which is not ideal for sprinting. I swam a 1:05.24 in prelims. I was too slow in the first 50 meters, which meant my momentum in the final 50 meters was affected. I tried too hard to turn on the afterburners in the final 15 meters, and it affected my stroke rate. Lots of people were eager to offer their advice after the race. I was more than willing to listen.

The race in finals was a blur. I don't remember much about the first 50 meters, only that I took 21 strokes and that I was going faster than in prelims. That was a perfect stroke count, and I pushed off the wall confident that I could at least get under 1:05. When the pain set in around the 80-meter mark, I concentrated on my stroke tempo, keeping it high, instead of slowing it down, which is what most people do when the muscles get fatigued. I took 23 strokes in the final 50 meters, touched the wall and closed my eyes as I took a few deep breaths and thought "Oh, please, God…"

"He did it!" yelled the announcer, though I heard the cheers from the timers in my lane first. I whipped my head around to see the scoreboard at the turning end of the pool. In bright red numbers, the time of "1:04.42" beamed out next to lane four. After a couple of fist pumps, I mouthed "I did it." My splits: 30.26, 34.16.

"I did it!" That was the first sentence in my post-race Facebook post. An hour later, I got 50 congratulatory comments, and dozens more liked the comment. One of those likes came from Michael Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman. That almost made me happier than making the cut. What also made me happy was inspiring many of the young swimmers at the meet, many of whom might never experience the thrill of Olympic Trials. A lot of them said they wanted to be as fast as me when they get older. (Thank you … I think?)

As I continue to relive the emotions of that day, I think about the hundreds of swimmers who will arrive in Palo Alto, Calif., in a couple of weeks for the USA swimming nationals, anxious to step up and get their Olympic Trials cuts. Some will make it. Some will not, and will taper again and again and again to get their shot at swimming in front of tens of thousands of people at the Qwest Center next June. Their accomplishments won't be posted on, but it doesn't make it less newsworthy.

Long ago, USA Swimming published a statistic that one-half of 1 percent of all competitive swimmers in the United States will ever make it to the Olympic Trials. Anyone who gets the chance should be thrilled to know they are part of an elite group. It's not as elite as being an Olympian, obviously, but still something to remember forever.

Just as I will enjoy every step of the journey leading up to the Olympic Trials (except waking up at 5 a.m. for workout), I hope all those joining me as participants in the meet take the time to savor each moment. I wish I had done so in 1992 and 1996. Back then, it was all business for me, which could partially explain my subpar performances. When swimming is fun – as it has been for me these past 10 years – fast swimming usually follows.