Journey to Olympic Trials: The End of the Road

Commentary by Jeff Commings

PHOENIX, Arizona, July 9. ONE year ago today, I qualified to swim the 100 breaststroke at Olympic Trials, and I cannot believe the long season has reached its end!

A lot has happened in and out of the pool since I swam a 1:04.42 last summer to get on the Trials qualifiers list. It started when my coach, Mark Rankin, sat me down and told me he was dedicated to seeing me swim faster in Omaha. I had my apprehensions. I gave it everything I had to swim that 1:04.42, and I wasn’t sure what I had left in me. Plus, the fact that I was getting older did not make me optimistic that I could be any faster. Despite that, I told Mark I was equally dedicated to swimming faster. No turning back!

After many miles of swimming and about 40 grueling dryland sessions with JR Rosania, I came through on my promise. I went two tenths faster than my seed time in Omaha, and for the first time at Olympic Trials, I got out of the pool with a smile on my face.

Here’s my race, captured by Chris Lundie and his awesome team at I’m fifth from the top of the screen:

I was having so much fun in Omaha, Neb., at the U.S. Olympic Trials that I decided to stick around for six more days and compete in the U.S. Masters long course nationals in the same pool where much younger swimmers made their dreams into reality.

I had long planned to swim in the Masters nationals after Olympic Trials, but after eight days of working for Swimming World covering Trials I was concerned about my ability to swim well at nationals. I went through those eight days still on a high about my performance at Trials in the 100 breast, and I spent the days between Trials and nationals getting motivated to swim not only the 100 breast, but five other individual events with my fellow Masters swimmers. I thought about the prospect of swimming faster in the 100 breast, but not sure how it could happen. The only goal I didn’t accomplish at Trials was breaking 1:03, and I was pushing hard to make sure I reached that goal.

Maybe I pushed too hard. The 100 breast was my first event at Masters nationals, and up until the minute before my race, I was considering my race strategy options. I had watched Steve West swim a 1:03.70 two heats before me, and I considered his smart plan of a smooth first 50, followed by an aggressive final 50. But I feared a smooth 50 for me wouldn’t translate to an aggressive second 50. I worried I couldn’t click into that second gear, and that in either scenario, my second 50 would be the same time. So, the plan was to go out fast, as I had done at Trials, and see what happens.

The first 50 felt pretty good, even a little better than it did at Trials. I felt strong through 75 meters, and then the pain hit. But I was still pulling a good deal of water, and I was confident I could maintain good form all the way to the wall. I was falling apart with 15 meters remaining, and the pain all over my body was more intense than it has been in a long time. I swam a 1:04.37, a little slower than Trials but still faster than I went last year (and still faster than the Trials qualifying time). I was not disappointed at all. In fact, I was relieved. A lot of people told me before the race they were looking forward to my 100 breast swim, and I was feeling the weight of expectations. My relief came from the belief that I met those expectations.

Here’s the video of that race:

With the stress of the 100 breast over, my body seemed to relax more through the meet. I didn’t race one meter of breaststroke on the third day of competition, winning the 50 backstroke in my age group (28.33), placing third in the 100 free and getting silver in the 200 medley relay (28.44 backstroke split).

But the best was saved for the last day. It started with a Masters world record in the mixed 200 medley relay in a time of 1:50.77. It was not only a record for our age group, but it was the fastest swim ever done in Masters competition! For the uninitiated, a mixed relay consists of two men and two women, and the trick with picking the swimmers for a medley relay is figuring out where to put the men and where to put the women. It was a no-brainer for us. Leading off was Japanese Olympian Noriko Inada, who broke the Masters world record for the 30-34 age group with her 28.57 backstroke leg. I swam breaststroke in 28.50, and Olympic champion Misty Hyman split 28.87 on butterfly. Our freestyler, Jose Ponce, had the best story of anyone. He started swimming three years ago, floundering in the “slower” lanes at Phoenix Swim Club. Now, he’s a Masters world record holder, splitting 24.87! We crushed the record by three seconds.

I’ve set a few Masters world records in my 12 years as a Masters swimmer, and this one has to rank as one of the top three. Yes, it helped having two Olympians on our squad, but we all wanted to break this record. Mark Rankin wasn’t sure if we would break it, based on his split estimates, and to see his face after we broke it was priceless. Coach Mark has a lot to be proud of in these past two weeks.

About an hour later I swam the individual 50 breast and won with a 28.93. It was my fastest time in a textile suit, four tenths off my national record that I set in a high-tech bodysuit in 2009.

My last event of the meet was the 100 backstroke. Ten years ago, I broke the one-minute barrier for the first time with a 59.86. I’ve gone under 1:00 four times since then, with the last one happening in 2007. (Yes, I couldn’t break 1:00 in a rubber suit.) I wanted to see “59” on the scoreboard again, though I feared that since I haven’t done it in five years, I might not see it happen again. My 50 back time gave me some motivation, though. I figured I needed to hit the 50 under 29 seconds, and sprint to the other wall. I did just that, splitting 28.62 to my feet and coming home in 31.02 for a time of 59.65! The last 25 meters hurt so much that I started flailing. That caused me to break my bodyline, and I grazed the lane rope with my left shoulder. Nevertheless, I was thrilled!

I was signed up to do the 200 IM, but the meet was running about an hour behind the timeline, and I had a 7:00 plane to catch. My heat started at 6:15, right as I was driving to the airport from a fun dinner with teammates. About 20 minutes later, I saw Mark Magee at the airport, huffing and puffing because he had swum in that 200 IM heat, got out of the pool, dressed and ran to the car for the drive to the airport. If I had swum in that heat, I would not have been able to get in a warm down swim, and I didn’t want to be in knots during the flight back to Phoenix. With the way my meet was going, I probably would have done very well. My hopes were to go under 2:13. That’s a goal for another time.

Masters nationals was not only a great way to end my two weeks in Omaha, but a great capper to what has been a very fun 12 months. Fun, and exhausting. I’m taking two weeks off from swimming to clear my head and evaluate everything I’ve done. I am going to start swimming again the week of the Olympics. With all the work I’ll be doing during the Olympics, a workout at Phoenix Swim Club will be much appreciated.

I can’t tell you if I plan to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Trials. I will be 42 years old, and I cannot imagine my body being able to handle the demands of competing at that level again. I will still be a Masters swimmer, though. That will never change.

I don’t even know what my swimming goals will be for the near future. Right now, I just want to bathe in the feeling of a successful swimming season — and enjoy some junk food!

Jeff Commings wrote a series of blog entries about his training for the 2012 Olympic Trials. All of his pool and dryland workouts can be found on his blog.

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