Katie McLaughlin Keeping Things in Perspective After Difficult Year

Katie McLaughlin
Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

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By David Rieder

At just seventeen years old and swimming in her first major international meet, Katie McLaughlin became a World Champion. Five months later, she faced an even greater test when a debilitating neck injury knocked her out of the pool altogether. Now, after a difficult four month stretch, she’s on the long road back.

McLaughlin entered her freshman year at Cal-Berkeley last August with one gold and one silver medal from Worlds in Kazan. McLaughlin had qualified to swim the 200 fly at that meet but was pressed into additional duty as a relay swimmer for Team USA, swimming the key third leg of the gold medal-winning 800 free relay.

McLaughlin ended up finishing sixth in the 200 fly, clocking a personal-best time of 2:06.95 but left wanting more‒she led the entire race before falling apart on the final lap.

“I just felt great and smooth, and then all of the sudden I did not feel great anymore. It started to not really be all that much fun,” McLaughlin said. “Obviously I would have liked to have done better, but I would say that about just about any race‒I think anyone would always want to be better.”

At the time, McLaughlin had every reason to believe that things would continue to get better. Her improvement had been rapid‒she broke 2:10 in the 200 fly for the first time in her triumph at 2013 Junior Nationals, and then dropped almost three seconds in a year on her way to a bronze medal in the 200 fly at the 2014 Pan Pacs with a 2:07.08. She clocked another personal best at Worlds.

She was joining a college team that was looking for her to turn in top-notch performances right away. The Golden Bears had just lost Missy Franklin to the professional ranks at the end of the previous season, so McLaughlin (along with fellow freshman standouts Kathleen Baker and Amy Bilquist) was expected to help defend the team’s NCAA title.

But the situation changed quickly when McLaughlin sustained a neck injury on the team’s training trip to Hawaii in early January. McLaughlin was forced to wear a neck brace and could not swim for about six weeks, leaving her only a week to prepare for the Pac-12 Championships in late February.

“I could kick, but I wasn’t allowed to use my hands. I had a waterproof brace, and I would kick on my back with my hands by my side. So that was interesting,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin and Cal head coach Teri McKeever determined that she was not physically prepared to swim the 200 fly at Pac-12s‒“Fly, when you’re out of shape really isn’t that much fun,” McLaughlin said‒so she swam the 100 and 200 free at Pac-12s. She clocked times of 49.06 and 1:46.75, respectively. Both were impressive efforts for a swimmer who had hardly been in the pool in two months‒but not nearly fast enough to earn a spot on the Bears’ NCAA roster.

With her debut college season cut short and her neck on the mend, McLaughlin and her parents made a big decision: she was coming home.

“We just decided I needed to go home and focus on physical therapy,” McLaughlin said. “When I first got out of my brace, I was supposed to go every day for an hour or so, and at school, you just don’t have the time.”

“When you’re a freshman and you go away to school for the first time, there are a lot of issues and transitions that any student faces, let alone if you’re a student athlete,” said McKeever. “There’s no way you could have planned for this. You just look at what the circumstances are, and you do what you think is best at that time, and that’s what she did. I wholeheartedly support that.”

McLaughlin continued her schoolwork online to avoid withdrawing from any of her classes mid-semester. She also attended the National Team training camp at the Olympic Training Center, though the main focus on that trip was getting much-needed therapy and slowly building up her yardage in the pool.

And indeed, the process was a deliberate one. McLaughlin began at about 2000 yards per day, and by the end of March she had barely reached 3500 and could still only swim once per day.

“By the time she was [at the Olympic Training Center] for three-and-a-half weeks and came back [to Southern California], she was very, very proud that she was able to finish a 5000-meter workout‒just to finish it,” said Bill Rose, McLaughlin’s longtime club coach with the Mission Viejo Nadadores. “At that point, when she comes back from training camp, I’m thinking, ‘Man, I’m just hoping that she doesn’t get too discouraged that it hurts her long-term.’”

Rose emphasizes that his goals are to put McLaughlin back on track for the long haul, building up her confidence and her love for the sport so that she can hit the ground running when she returns to school this fall.

“I just want her to get back so that she can be the best she can be this year, and if that’s not to the 100% level, then to make sure that she continues so that when she gets back to Cal she can enjoy her college experience,” Rose said.

Rose knows that it would be tough for McLaughlin to be back to her best by the time Olympic Trials roll around at the end of June, but there have been some encouraging signs lately. She recently returned to long course competition after six months away. Competing at the Fran Crippen Swim Meet of Champions held at her home pool in Mission Viejo in late April, McLaughlin put up a 2:13.88 in her signature 200 fly on the first day and followed that up with a 1:59.74 200 free and 59.94 100 fly.

By the time SMOC came around, McLaughlin had only been back in full training‒including doubles‒for two weeks, but she still wasn’t satisfied with being seven seconds off of her personal best in the 200 fly.

“At first I was like, ‘That’s literally awful. That’s so slow. I can’t believe that.’ But I also have to think, ‘Ok, but think about what this year has been and what training has been,’” McLaughlin said. “I definitely have a lot to work on, and I think it showed in some of my races. I need to work on my speed and my strength. I think it was really encouraging that I didn’t die in my races, so it shows I’m in okay shape.”

Rose was more than encouraged by her efforts at SMOC‒he was blown away.

“Where did that come from?” Rose said of McLaughlin’s 200 free. “[I said,] ‘Hey, great job, you know, wow! I never thought we could do that!’ She goes, ‘Huh, yeah, but it’s gonna take a 1:55, and I’ve gotta be there.’ I’m going, ‘Okay, Katie, way to go.’ She’s that way. She’s not gonna be happy until she’s back, number one in her mind.”

Earning a spot on this summer’s Olympic Team won’t be an easy task for McLaughlin. She currently has the second-best seed time for the 200 fly behind Kazan silver medalist Cammile Adams, but her setbacks this season could open the door for stalwarts Maya DiRado and Hali Flickinger or young talents such as Ella Eastin and Cassidy Bayer.

She will also be aiming for a spot on the women’s 800 free relay, but the U.S. has some serious depth in that event‒Olympic gold medalist Allison Schmitt and the past two World Champions in the 200 free, Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky, all wait in the wings. McLaughlin would have to improve on her lifetime best time of 1:57.55 to finish in the top six.

“I don’t think we have a crystal ball of what is going to happen‒if she had stayed healthy, we still don’t know what would have happened,” McKeever said. “I think the only thing anyone can do is just deal with where they are and be in the best possible place they can come June [26].”

But despite the circumstances, the always-competitive McLaughlin has managed to keep a positive outlook.

“I hope it all goes well, and I go fast, and I make the team. But I think if it doesn’t happen for me I have to have the perspective of like, this year hasn’t unfolded the way I expected at all,” McLaughlin said. “We can all hope for the best, and I have to go in knowing I’ve been doing everything I can and just have confidence in what I’ve done. And have some fun too.”

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Frances
6 years ago

GO KATIE! WE KNOW YOU CAN DO!!!

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Matthew Petrovich
6 years ago
Reply to  Frances

GO KATIE GO

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Swamfan
6 years ago

I’ve been a fan of Katie for a while now, she such a talented athlete with a great attitude. This neck injury sounds very serious. Does anyone know how on earth she sustained such an injury?