By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
This weekend, Claire Donahue returns to the pool where she saw the first sign of what was to come last summer – making her first Olympic Team.
At the Arena Grand Prix at Charlotte presented by UltraSwim last May, she finished second to eventual Olympic champion Dana Vollmer in the 100 fly, but swam a time much faster than she was expecting. Her performance showed her that she was capable of going fast and even faster as the months quickly passed leading up to Olympic Trials in Omaha.
“I went mid-58 last year (in Charlotte), and I was pretty much hoping to go that fast but wasn’t sure I was ready to,” Donahue said. “I went into the meet actually expecting to go mid- to high-59, but going as fast as I did was a big confidence boost for me.
“I finished third behind Dana and Natalie (Coughlin), but was only .10 behind Natalie, so I knew I was really close. That race proved a great practice run for me as I continued to prepare for Trials. It was an opportunity to swim and fix things before Trials.”
She broke through that 59-second barrier a couple of weeks later at the Santa Clara Invitational – and then went even faster in the finals of the 100 fly at Olympic Trials. Her time proved good enough to place second and make the 2012 Olympic Team – an honor she often still has trouble believing and accepting.
Her result was a vast improvement from what she calls “a very nervous meet” four years earlier at Trials when she didn’t get out of prelims in either of her butterfly events.
“I had one of the fastest first-50s in the meet but ended up fading down the last 50 (in the 100 fly),” said Donahue, and All-American at Western Kentucky University. “I was really nervous – I freaked out – at (2008) Trials mostly because it was my first big meet ever and the enormity of the event got the best of me.
“I knew getting nervous was a possibility in 2012, but I had spent the previous year working with a sports psychologist, and that really made a big difference. I was still very excited, but it was a good excitement, a controlled excitement. Trials were the most calm I’ve ever been at a meet, and once I made the team, I just kept telling myself (in the warm down pool) ‘I’m an Olympian!’ It was great that I was able to channel that extra energy toward swimming fast and making my nervousness a positive.”
In London, Donahue made the finals in the 100 fly but didn’t medal. She said she went in, obviously, with high hopes of placing in the top 3 and winning a medal, but, with it being her first Olympics, she was just happy to be swimming on the world’s biggest stage.
She didn’t leave London empty handed, however, as she swam the butterfly leg in morning prelims for the U.S. 400 medley relay team and shared in the gold medal outcome when her teammates won later that night.
She admitted being there and soaking up “the Olympic experience” was a bit overwhelming, but she truly enjoyed living it with her teammates. She kept a daily journal chronicling her experiences, observations and memories so that she could go back months later and reflect upon what a great time she had at her first Olympic Games.
“Once you reach that level, it really doesn’t matter what you do because you’re there and so many others aren’t,” Donahue said. “If I make the team for Rio in 2016, I might have a different outlook about being there because I’ll have done it once already. But in London, I was ecstatic to just be there competing against the best swimmers in the world.”
Almost a year removed from Trials and the Games, Donahue said her life has definitely changed. She is recognized at school (she continues to train at Western Kentucky) and in her hometown – even though most people don’t know her by name.
They just know her face and that “she’s that girl who swam in the Olympics,” and they gather and clamor for her autograph and the frequent photo.
Deep down, however, Donahue said she knows she’s the same person she’s always been, and her coaches, family and friends still see her as the same old Claire.
“I still feel the same, but overall, my life has completely changed from a year ago when I was relatively unknown outside of the swimming world,” Donahue said. “Now, I’m traveling, doing clinics and speaking in front of huge groups of kids and parents. Sharing in the excitement of seeing young kids excited about swimming is great and helps continue to drive my passion for the sport.”
And now that she’s fulfilled her lifelong dream of being an Olympian, what’s next for one of Western Kentucky’s most famous alumni?
“Before Trials, I was prepared to stop swimming and move on with the next phase of my life if I didn’t make the team,” Donahue said. “But now that I’ve swum at the Olympics and experienced that part of the sport, I want more of it.
“I want to see how much faster I can go and continue to represent the U.S. at meets around the world. Being a part of this swimming family is 10 times better than I ever dreamed, and I’m not ready to stop yet. I’m shooting for Rio in 2016 – so we’ll see what happens between now and then.”