Melissa Rodriguez’s Olympic Dream: Third Time is the Charm

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Photo Courtesy: Lalo Arballo

By Daniela Navarrete, Swimming World College Intern.

As swimmers, we have all experienced a moment in our careers when we missed a personal best, a medal, or the opportunity to qualify for a big meet by merely hundredths of a second. But what if that big meet is the Olympic Games? Melissa Rodriguez, a Mexican breaststroker, has been on the edge of achieving the Olympic dream twice in a row. Now, she is closer than ever with more than a year left for the Games.

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Photo Courtesy: Melissa Rodriguez

Rodriguez started her third Olympic cycle last summer at the 2018 Central American Games in Barranquilla, Colombia. On the evening of July 23, Rodriguez won the gold medal in the 200-meter breaststroke with a time of 2.25.60, just .08 seconds from the Olympic A cut.

Early Beginning

For the current national record holder in all breaststroke events, it all started at a summer camp when she was four years old. “My mom wanted me to learn how to swim so I didn’t drown at pool parties,” she laughs.

Throughout her childhood, she also played racquetball and basketball and even danced ballet; but when she was 10, she chose to just swim.

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Photo Courtesy: Melissa Rodriguez

The following year, she qualified for her first national meet in which she represented her home state – Chihuahua. During the 2006 Mexican National Olympics, she won one silver and two bronze medals in her age group. Three years later, she won her first national gold in the 100-meter breaststroke at Mexican Senior Nationals.

College Swimming

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Photo Courtesy: David Farr

Rodriguez swam for Pennsylvania State University from 2012 to 2016. An agricultural and international business double major, Rodriguez was an NCAA qualifier all four years and was one of the best breaststrokers in school history. “I think as international student-athletes, we all go to the United States with the same mindset of striving for excellence. We want to be the best swimmers while getting the highest grades,” Rodriguez states.

In her last NCAA meet, she was an All-American honors recipient, breaking the school record in the 200-yard breaststroke. To this day, her record remains unbroken.

International Stage

Rodriguez’s debut as a national teamer was during the 2010 Central American and Caribbean Games in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. She swam the three breaststroke events and went home with a bronze in the 100-meter breaststroke and a silver in the 200-meter breaststroke.

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Photo Courtesy: Melissa Rodriguez

“I didn’t realize what I achieved right away until the competition was over. At that moment, I was one of the three youngest members of the team, so I didn’t have any expectations at all. I just wanted to enjoy the experience of traveling to a new country without my parents and meeting new people. Before the Games, I had already been part of the Mexican Junior National Team, but this time it was different because they were all much more experienced than me. However, I must say it was one of the most remarkable experiences of my swimming career.”

Later on, she swam at the same edition of the Games in 2014 and 2018. Additionally, she attended the 2011 and 2015 Pan-American Games and was a member of Team Mexico during the 2017 World University Games.

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Photo Courtesy: Melissa Rodriguez

Olympic Road

During the qualifying period for the London Olympics in 2012, Rodriguez achieved the B cut in the 200-meter breaststroke. For these Games, Mexico sent swimmers with B cuts if they were announced to be part of the ranking. Yet she missed the ranking by .07 seconds.

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Photo Courtesy: Pexels, Anthony

For the next Olympic cycle, she already had the B cut and her time was part of the ranking that each country could take to Rio. “I really thought I was going to make it this time. I assumed the [Mexican Swimming] Federation was going to take those who made it to the B-cut ranking, since that is what they did for London,” Rodriguez recalls.

Setbacks

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Photo Courtesy: Melissa Rodriguez

However, six months before the qualifying period was over, the Mexican Swimming Federation changed its standards. It informed the swimmers that unless they achieved an A cut, they would not participate in the Olympics. Rodriguez was one of the five swimmers that edged an A cut. Mexico just sent three swimmers to Rio and took Rodriguez off the roster.

“The Mexican Swimming Federation lacks organization and projection; there are last minute changes in meet programs and national team policies, lack of substance monitoring in the pool (as the water sickened hundreds of swimmers during 2018 Nationals) and lack of adequate training facilities. It has been a long, tough way to get to where me and other national team members are now despite all of these struggles.”

She felt frustrated and demotivated since her dream was taken away one more time. With one semester of college left, Rodriguez seriously thought of retirement after graduation. Nonetheless, she decided she wanted to continue swimming and went back home to train with her longtime coach Nicolas Torres.

Rodriguez still had the Olympic dream in mind but realized that the practices she had been doing until then were not enough. “I told him I needed some changes: no more doubles, shorter practices, and more race strategy. Therefore, we adopted a training approach similar to Michael Andrew’s USRPT. That is what I’ve been doing over the last year and a half, and it seems to be giving me results.”

Road to Tokyo

Her persistence and hard work in the sport is paying off. Rodriguez’s next step towards the Olympic dream is the upcoming Pan-American Games in Lima, Peru, in which she will strive to punch her Olympic ticket.

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Photo Courtesy: Lalo Arballo

Now as a 24-year-old, Rodriguez is conscious that young swimmers are getting faster at a higher rate, but she believes age is not a factor that will limit her from achieving her dream. “Dara Torres’ book title, ‘Age is Just a Number’ is true. It doesn’t matter if I am 20, 24, 30 or 35, I believe there is always going to be a chance for me to get faster as long as I put in the effort mentally and physically.”

We look forward to watch her big swims as she continues her path to Tokyo!

-All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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