By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
OMAHA – The odds were not in Claire Donahue’s favor.
After all, Donahue drives 2.5 hours four times a week just to practice in an Olympic-sized pool. Her coach once urged her to seek a sports psychologist. (Donahue gets nervous – so much so, it sometimes affects her performance.)
She attended mid-major Western Kentucky University, a school not known as a national swimming prowess. She didn’t attend a big-time, star-laden training hub. Didn’t link up with Olympic-aspiring training partners. Didn’t transfer schools when she began dropping time like a reliable metronome, year after year. Didn’t go elsewhere after she finished runner-up at the NCAA Championships.
Instead, after graduation, she stayed at WKU. Stayed with the same coach. Stayed with the same support group. And it worked.
“When I first looked up [at the scoreboard], I kinda squinted and looked at the top,” Donahue said after her swim. “And the first thing I looked at was the place, and I saw second. Oh my gosh. I was so surprised.”
Surprised? Reasonable. Happy? Check out Donahue’s Tweet last night:
“SooooooooSO SO SO SO SO SO HAPPY!!!!!!!!!!!! I am going to the OLYMPICS!!!!! It's so still setting in. You can't get the smile off my face!”
(Note: Though Donahue has not officially been named to the team yet, she will likely be added to the roster pending athletes qualifying in multiple events).
If day one of the 2012 Trials was about big-time programs and big-time swimmers, then day two was about proving someone or something wrong. Eric Shanteau proved cancer wrong. Brendan Hansen proved retirement wrong. Dana Vollmer proved bad memories wrong. And Claire Donahue proved swimming’s hierarchy wrong.
When Claire Donahue slapped the wall behind Dana Vollmer, Donahue proved to the world an inspiring lesson. You can swim anywhere. You can attend any school. And you can qualify for sport’s greatest stage.
The Western Kentucky swimmer exhibited her own version of March Madness. She swam past the Texases, Cals, Stanfords and Arizonas. With one swim under the bright hot lights at the most intense competition in the entire world, Donahue announced her – and the Western Kentucky Hilltopper swim team’s – arrival.
“There just aren't words,” Donahue said. “I was ecstatic.”
We were on the phone, and Claire Donahue seemed anything but shy.
This was three months ago. Donahue was in the midst of heavy training. She admitted to watching Western Kentucky basketball’s dramatic first-round comeback in the NCAA tournament. She discussed her secret trick for disarming pre-race jitters – one that includes imagining everything awful and negative that can happen in a race, then overcoming it. Still, she described herself as a “shy” person.
“I’m shy around people,” Donahue said, “but when it comes to swimming, that’s when I’m more myself.”
So imagine what it must have been like, last night at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, to step out onto that pool deck, surrounded 360-degrees by 12,000 fans (24,000 eyes) behind the blocks in lane one. At least with the inside lanes you’d have a body barrier away from the eyes, cameras, flashes, cell phones. Competing in the outside lane, however, you are exposed. Donahue must have craved the official to just blow the whistle already, so she could dive in and at least retreat to that place where she’s “more herself.”
And yet, swimmers know big races are won and lost in those overpowering seconds before the beep. In those nightmarish moments before you dive in, when a thousand thoughts swirl around – when there are thoughts that are good, and thoughts that are bad. It is why we see great swimmers suddenly fail, and other swimmers suddenly surprise. Arguably, the race is won or lost in these few short precious seconds, as the 24,000 eyes look on.
Imagine your whole athletic life coming down to this.
“I think [calming down before the race] was the main part, the most important part,” Donahue said. “Then when I got out there, I swam my own race and did what I do every race and made sure I nailed everything.”
Don’t fault Donahue for having pre-race jitters. You would too. And maybe Donahue calmed herself by remembering those long drives to swim in an Olympic sized pool. Maybe Donahue remembered her vast, wide support group at WKU, and imagined their eyes cheering her on instead of these strangers’.
There was a question if Donahue could rise to the calling of her swimming life’s biggest moment. She did. And she has -- both now, and throughout her career. It is why she continues to drop time – and why she says she still hasn’t stopped dropping time. It is in this regard that Claire Donahue isn’t shy:
As long as Donahue could survive the pre-race moments, she would be OK. She may be shy, but in the water, she’s anything but.
There was talk that Donahue’s swim wasn’t nearly as “surprising” as some make it out to be. She swam a similar swift time in the preliminaries. She came in with some international experience. Was she shocked? Did others think she could do this? Was she a David overcoming a number of goliaths?
“I guess it depends on who you ask,” Donahue says, “but I would say I had a good shot at it.”
She was, after all, a Pan-American champion. NCAA runner-up. She competed at the Mutual of Omaha Duel in the Pool. She’s not some random teenager fresh off the “this is my first big meet” bus.
Donahue deserves to be here, just like Western Kentucky deserves to be represented in the Olympics. She has put in the work. She has sacrificed her life to pursue this. Some would argue that chasing a dream at a small school like WKU gives you even more pressure. Friends constantly ask about it. You’re the big fish. Everyone knows you’re “trying out for the Olympics.” Some could argue that her existence in the relatively small Midwestern pond of Hilltoppers actually proved advantageous by forcing her to communicate to everyone she knew, met, or talked with, and say, “Hi, I’m Claire Donahue and I’m spending this year of my life to try and make the Olympic team.” That’s not to say other swimmers don’t do this, but Donahue had no other bodies to hide behind at WKU. No other big name superstars to absorb some of the spotlight.
And in that way, it’s ironic that the self-described shy swimmer goes on to make all her dreams come true. On the one hand, you wouldn’t think the odds made it possible. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense.
She’s always been the big star. It’s just, now everyone else knows, too.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance contributor for USASwimming.org Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeLGustafson.