Morning Splash by David Rieder.
Veronica Burchill did not swim at Olympic Trials in 2012. Then just 14 years old, she didn’t even have Junior Nationals cuts. But she did spend a few days in Omaha, Neb., watching the meet, and the way Burchill describes it, that experienced forever changed the course of her swimming career.
Claire Adams, one of Burchill’s teammates from Carmel Swim Club, did have Olympic Trials cuts, and she swam in both backstroke events. Carmel made an occasion out of Adams’ Trials experience, bringing several swimmers, including Burchill and her younger sister Sammie, to watch the meet as part of a training trip.
Ian Murray, who was coaching Burchill full-time in 2012 and continued as one of her coaches through 2016, noticed a major change in Burchill’s training habits and a newfound seriousness in her swimming after the Omaha trip. A few weeks later, Burchill made her first Juniors cut.
“When we went to 2012 Trials, my entire mindset changed,” Burchill said. “From that point on, I was kind of like, ‘Okay, I think I can do something in this sport.”
The next key moment that stands out to Burchill in her swimming history came two years later, in the spring of 2014 when she was a sophomore in high school. She had just swum the 100 fly at a long course Sectionals meet. Her time was a 1:03, which Burchill described as “not terrible, but it wasn’t great.” Afterwards, Murray told her it would take a 59 to win Junior Nationals that summer.
“I said, ‘Alright, looks like I’m going a 59 this summer,’” Burchill recalled.
Lo and behold, that August, Burchill swam a time of 59.83 in the 100 fly and won Junior Nationals.
“That summer was the best training I’d had up to that point. I think the moment I truly fell in love with the sport was when I won the 100 fly at Juniors. Ever since that summer, I’ve just enjoyed the sport so much.”
In June 2017, Burchill was back home in Indiana. She had just completed her freshman year at the University of Georgia, where she had been an instant-impact relay swimmer for the Bulldogs. It was the first day of U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, about a half-hour drive south of her home in Carmel.
Burchill was swimming the 100 free, in heat 12, lane one. Also in her heat were Katie Ledecky in lane five and three-time U.S. Olympian Amanda Weir in lane four. Swimming a strong race after 50 meters, Burchill was on the home stretch when suddenly, the brakes were slammed on for her.
“I hit the lane line with my left arm,” Burchill explained. She lost almost all of her momentum. “At that point, I had the most adrenaline I’ve ever had in my entire life. I was like, ‘No, I messed up my race.’ I have never sprinted so hard to the wall.”
Somehow, she recovered. When Burchill touched the wall, she saw that she was second in her heat, at 55.04. She had destroyed her previous lifetime best of 55.89, set three years earlier. And in what turned out to be a relatively slow field of 100 freestylers, that was good enough to get her into the final in eighth place.
Was she surprised? Well, yeah, because she had figured it was the 100 fly where she had her best chance to make a final, not the 100 free. Now, if she only beat two people in that final, she would earn a World Championships spot that absolutely no one saw coming.
That night, Burchill dropped her time down to 54.92, good enough for seventh place, a bit frustrating at first but soon exhilarating when Burchill realized she had locked up a place on the World University Games team for the U.S.
“I think it was a long time coming, if I’m being honest,” she said. “I didn’t go best times for three years, and then I went best times last summer. I felt like it was a long time coming because I made the junior team in high school, but I never made an international meet with the junior team.”
The result was sweet and satisfying, yes, but not surprising. Burchill had not let herself consider a scenario where she didn’t make the WUGs team. That thinking was born in early May, when a confident Burchill sat down with her coach at Georgia, Brian Smith.
Just like she had promised Murray three years earlier that she would win Junior Nationals, she was ready to promise Smith the same sort of lofty goal.
“I said, ‘I’m making a team this summer,’” Burchill said. “I didn’t even say World Championships because I didn’t think that was on the table. I was thinking WUGs. He said, ‘Okay, but if you don’t—’ I go, ‘I’m making WUGs.’ He goes, ‘Okay, well, we need a plan in case you don’t.’ I said, ‘Okay, but I’m just telling you I’m making this meet.’”
At her first international meet in Taipei, Burchill snagged a pair of relay medals and finished sixth in the 100 free. And as she sat back and reflected on the experience nine months later, she spoke with a tone of incredible satisfaction.
“It was incredible,” she said. “I think it was special having two teammates there with me (Taylor Dale and Kevin Litherland), and I got to room with some longtime friends like Miranda Tucker—she and I, in 2014, that spring we tied (at Sectionals) in the 100 fly, and that’s how we met. I got to room with her and Kaersten Meitz and Asia Seidt.
“It was just really cool to be with all these people that you hear about, and I’m one of them. It was kind of like, ‘Alright, I’m finally moving in the direction I really want to in this sport.’”
In 2012, Burchill was in the building the night Missy Franklin qualified for her first Olympic team. Now, Franklin trains at Georgia, and the two occasionally share a lane. Burchill also trains daily in the sprint group with Olivia Smoliga, and in total, there are seven swimmers on deck every day in Athens who made the 2016 U.S. Olympic team.
“When it comes to training with these people, it’s become the norm for me,” she said. “It is kind of still surreal.”
Surrounding herself with swimmers who have had so much success has helped Burchill to see the possibilities swimming holds beyond just competing for the NCAA team. In Burchill’s voice, you can hear that burning hunger and desire to reach the next level and her willingness to put in the work it takes to get there.
The original source of that competitive spirit? Burchill’s all-time favorite teammate: her younger sister. Shortly after Veronica left for Athens to begin her freshman year in the fall of 2016, Sammie verbally committed to the Bulldogs for the following season.
“They can be the best of friends, and they can be the fiercest of rivals at the same time,” Murray said. “I think they both thrive from that.”
During Veronica’s sophomore year and Sammie’s freshman year, the two lived one floor apart in the same dorm. Veronica insists that “she’s my best friend” and that she looks up to Sammie, particularly for her work ethic. Sibling rivalries can bring tension, but perhaps because they swim different events (Sammie is mostly an IMer and backstroker), it doesn’t work like that for the Burchill sisters.
“We’re each other’s biggest support systems. If she’s having a rough day or I’m having a rough day, we will come to each other with whatever,” Veronica said. “I am so thankful she came to Georgia because I don’t know if I could go through college without her. I know that sounds really cheesy, but she and I are better in the same place than apart, especially with swimming, because we bring out the best in each other.”
That hyper-competitiveness was what first made Veronica so successful as a high school swimmer. But as she has moved into her college years, Murray has noticed another attribute in his former swimmer that most great swimmers possess: How she has taken ownership of her burgeoning swimming career.
“Spending time with her in Indy at the Pro Swim Series, every time that I’m around her now, she’s just more and more mature as an athlete,” Murray said. “That’s no knock on her. That was the final piece she was missing, the maturity as an athlete, and that continues to grow, and there’s so much more for her there.”
At Georgia, Burchill is a human development and family science major. One day, she hopes to become a teacher. She’s also a talented amateur photographer, though she insists that’s just a hobby. For right now, though, swimming is the main thing, and Burchill has the pieces to take her career one step further.