Katie McLaughlin ‘Riding Full Wave of Emotion’ After Rocky Journey Finally Leads to Olympic Dreams

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

As Katie McLaughlin was announced as an Olympian and the medal was placed around her neck, she was fighting back tears.

It has been an emotional five years for McLaughlin.

The 2016 trials were devastating as she made several finals but missed out on an Olympic spot by less than a second.

Now in 2021, McLaughlin finished fourth in the 200 freestyle to clinch a spot on the 800 free relay for the U.S. — and earn a spot in Tokyo.

“I am riding a full wave of emotion. I think when we rose up, I welled up a little bit. Seeing my family — my mom almost pulled me into the stands. Things like that and seeing my teammates and how excited they are for me and Teri (McKeever) and all of my supporters. That is the biggest thing that helps it set in. I almost start crying (again) when I think of all of those people.”

Especially her teammates who were so happy for her, despite not being in the best position themselves at that point in trials. McLaughlin was on the flip side of that four years ago, so knows how hard that can be.

“After I got out of the pool, Abbey (Weitzeil) and Kathleen (Baker) were right there to hug me. They were both welled up with tears. It was really special,” McLaughlin said. “It is cool to have friends like that that when things aren’t necessarily going their way, they can still appreciate it for me.”

 

 

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And McLaughlin can appreciate her own rocky journey to this moment.

In 2016, McLaughlin finished eighth in the 200 freestyle, mission a position on the relay by two spots — and less than a second. She finished sixth in the 200 butterfly, missed the final in the 100 butterfly by one spot, finishing ninth, and was disqualified in the 100 free.

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Katie McLaughlin. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

After a stellar career at Cal where she was known for her versatility and innate ability to swim All-American doubles at the NCAA championships, McLaughlin decided to become a professional swimmer in hopes of reaching her Olympic dreams in 2020.

The pandemic completely altered her first year as a pro, and a shoulder injury that required surgery left her chances of making the team in 2021 in doubt.

But McLaughlin put together some strong swims to start the week and build her way to an Olympic swim. She finished fifth in the 100 butterfly (57.72) on Monday before shifting her focus to the 200 freestyle.

“Coming into the meet my intention was no matter what happens in the 100 fly, with the 200 free the next day … next event up.”

McLaughlin put together a strong back-half of the race to get her hand on the wall fourth to clinch a relay spot, finishing in 1:57.16 to join Katie Ledecky, Allison Schmitt and Paige Madden on the relay.

“There is something about stepping up on the blocks when you are not representing yourself but your team or your country that is just — it pulls something out of you there. It’s just always exciting and fun to race. I don’t know, I like swinging into the water instead of doing a start, you know?” McLaughlin said.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

McLaughlin focused on events that could get her those relay spots, even giving up an unexpected event.

The 200 fly was an event seen as a contending event for McLaughlin, but she decided well before trials that she wasn’t going to swim that race anymore.

She is swimming the 100 free and has the 10th seed heading into semifinals, another event alongside Schmitt, who has impacted many swimmers with her leadership, including McLaughlin.

“It’s really exciting. If anything the best way to put it is it’s a huge honor. Schmitty is such an amazing leader and cares about everyone’s swimming just as much as her own swimming. I’ve gotten the opportunity to travel with her a ton and gotten to look up to her and she is such a steady, positive energy that is just really amazing to be around,” McLaughlin said. “I feel really honored to be able to swim with her and lookup to her in our races and lean on her as an amazing leader and someone who always has something positive to say with a smile on her face. It’s just awesome.”

McLaughlin has been one of the best relay swimmers in recent memory at several levels. She has been on Team USA relays at the world championships and helped Cal set NCAA records in relay championships. But a relay in the Olympics is another level of awesome that McLaughlin has been waiting years to reach.

“I can’t really express how excited and grateful I feel,” Katie McLaughlin said. “I think everyone here has something in their journey that is hard for them to overcome. I don’t feel like I’m different in that way, but I think that the people around me that are cheering for me every single day and believing in me — that is who I am. I am not here because of myself. I am here because of all the people that are around me and care about me, and I’m so grateful for them and excited for this opportunity.”

Spoken like a grateful teammate ready to line up on the world’s biggest stage — on a team she has waited her entire career to join.

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