By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Whether it’s a National Championships or Olympic Trials, there are always a few surprises in the pool by athletes on the verge of making their first big team. This week in Indianapolis, at the Phillips 66 National Championships, the U.S. contingent headed to Barcelona for the 2013 FINA World Championships will be chosen, and here are a few swimmers ready for their breakthrough.
Olivia Smoliga - Olivia Smoliga never expected to win a world title last December when she went to Istanbul, Turkey, to compete at Short Course World Championships.
She went to the event – fresh from a summer and fall that included setting two national high school records at the Illinois state championships, including Olympian Kara Lynn Joyce’s mark in the 50 freestyle, a strong Olympic Trials, and multiple titles at Junior Pan Pacific Championships – to learn and gain experience.
When she left, she not only had accomplished both but also returned home with an unexpected but not unearned world title in the 100 backstroke.
And while this week’s Nationals are long course, Smoliga stands at the precipice of making her first National and subsequently World Championship team. She is seeded third in both the 50 and 100 backstroke events behind fellow teenagers Missy Franklin and Rachel Bootsma.
“I just went (into Worlds) just hoping to meet new people and live in the moment of being surrounded by so many Olympians,” said Smoliga, who also won a national high school title for Glenbrook South High School in the 100 backstroke last October. “I wanted to learn new things from all the coaches and soak up the atmosphere of my first senior-level international meet.”
Based upon the year she had leading up to Short Course Worlds, Smoliga’s win wasn’t really all that huge of a surprise despite her very limited experience on the world stage. At Olympic Trials a year ago, she finished fourth in the 100 backstroke and missed out on making the Olympic team by a couple of spots.
“After a little while, it lit a fire in me and made me excited for the road ahead,” Smoliga said. “I slowly overcame my combination of disappointment and motivation from Trials and used it to my advantage.”
Smoliga will attend the University of Georgia this fall and would like nothing more than to add FINA World Championship team member to her already impressive resume.
“This past year has definitely given me a lot of confidence. I really want to do well at Nationals and hopefully make the World Champ Team, and if I put in the hard training with my coach, I think I will hit my times there,” Smoliga said. “I want to build up my endurance during practice and gain some more muscle strength (much needed) in order to compete with some of the big dogs.”
Bobby Bollier – Despite the 2012 Olympic Trials being one of the most disappointing meets of his life, Bobby Bollier left Omaha last summer having realized he learned something he could use in the future.
He returned to the Palo Alto, Calif., area to train at his alma mater, Stanford, and believes he is swimming faster and better than ever. He attributes those lessons learned at Olympic Trials when he failed to make his first Olympic Team.
“My training has been intense but great, and I’m swimming as fast as I ever have. I’m excited to see what I can do this week,” Bollier said.
One reason Bollier – who made the finals of the 200 butterfly at Trials last summer but missed making the team – is feeling so inspired and excited about his swimming prospects this year is the recent change he’s made to his training.
He has started training with a group of college grads at Stanford who swim separately from the varsity team.
“Ted (Knapp) and Scott (Armstrong), the Stanford coaches, have been coaching us some of the time (especially Scott, who really expressed interest in the group when he took the assistant coaching job), and then Tony from Palo Alto Stanford Aquatics (PASA) acts as a sort of "’head coach,’” Bollier said. “I'm feeling good about my training right now. I'm finding ways to swim faster than I ever have in practice, even when I can barely swim another 100. And training in a group of seven really makes the environment close-knit and enjoyable.
“We’ve been doing a lot of sprint training, which has been fantastic, but we also do a good aerobic workout every once in a while – usually nothing more than around 7,000 meters.”
Bollier’s road to current swimming satisfaction took a short detour following his performance at Trials last June. He had the fastest time heading into the night’s finals and was poised to make his first Olympic Team. As expected, Michael Phelps secured one spot, leaving the second position open to the fastest remaining swimmer.
Bollier held the lead for that spot heading into the wall but was out touched by Tyler Clary – settling for third place and missing a spot on the team.
Seeded second behind Clary in the 200 fly this week in Indianapolis – and with Michael having retired following last year’s Olympics – Bollier knows he’s in a good position to make his first World Championship team.
“On one hand, yes, it's a big relief that that No. 2 spot has opened up, but on the other hand, now there's pressure to fill in that No. 1 spot that Phelps is leaving,” Bollier said.
Laura Sogar – In the pool, Laura Sogar races like an eight-year-old.
At least that’s what she’s been accused of for years by her coaches because of her somewhat impish approach and reaction to competition – and for the most part, she’s okay with it.
She knows what works best for her, even if that sometimes means figuratively taking out a competitor’s kneecap to meet her goals.
She’s hoping that competitively lighthearted outlook pays dividends this week at Nationals, where she is a favorite (seeded third in the 200, sixth in the 50 and seventh in the 100 breaststroke events) – especially with Olympic and World Champion Rebecca Soni absent from the meet.
“I hate losing, and I will pull out all the stops to beat the girl next to me,” said Sogar, who finished her swimming eligibility this fall at the University of Texas. “Racing is really what I love most about swimming, especially when it gets tough at the end and it becomes a contest over who has the most composure and can keep their stroke together while continuing to push the envelope.”
Pushing forward in the water is something Sogar has been doing ever since she started swimming at 5 years old. She evolved through the sport with a love/hate relationship – hating to go to workouts but absolutely loving it once she was there in the water among her friends.
As she grew older, she started having more and more success and was hooked – enjoying seeing her hard work pay off in the times on the scoreboard as well as the many relationships she forged in and out of the pool.
Sogar enjoyed her greatest success thus far at last year’s Olympic Trials – finishing fourth in the 200 breaststroke and missing the podium and the plane to London by just two spots. She also made the consolation finals in the 100 breast and competed in the 200 individual medley.
Sogar followed up her promising performance at Trials with an equally strong showing a few weeks later at the U.S. Open – where she won the 200 breast and finished second in the 100 breast – and earned a spot this summer’s U.S. World University Games team – her first senior level National Team.
While she’s excited about international travel and competition to Kazan, Russia, deep down she knows she’d much rather go to Barcelona.
“Making this team (World University Games) means a lot to me because it gives me another big meet next summer to work toward and evaluate my future in swimming,” said Sogar, an economics major at Texas with thoughts of going back to school in the future to pursue a second degree in engineering.
“A lot of my decisions will be based on how I swim next summer, so right now I’m focusing on putting myself in a position where it will be very difficult for me to leave the sport.”
Ryan Murphy – Training every day in your high school pool with an Olympian has its advantages – just ask Ryan Murphy.
A recent graduate of the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Fla., Murphy and his high school teammates have shared their pool with 2012 Olympic gold medalist Charlie Houchin for a few years.
He said they’ve not only learned from watching Houchin’s tremendous work ethic but also from speaking with him – absorbing his advice and optimistic praise.
“I was talking to Charlie the other day, and (for some time) he has been trying to pump me up,” Murphy said. “He said, ‘You know who’s beatable at World Trials, Ryan?’ I responded with a simple, ‘I don’t know, Chuck.’ Then he looked at me and said, ‘Everyone’s beatable Ryan. You can beat them all.’”
Murphy’s next step toward reaching the goal of swimming at a future Olympics begins this week at the 2013 Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships in Indianapolis.
He’s swimming a full slate of events – his specialty backstroke events (including the 50), the 100 freestyle, both the 200 individual medley and 50 free on the final day of competition, and possibly the 100 butterfly – each contributing and building toward earning a spot on his first long course World Championship team.
Since graduating last month, he said he’s basically been on taper – and he’s ready to make a big splash at the meet.
It wasn’t that long ago (2010) that he broke multiple Olympic gold medalist Aaron Peirsol’s National Age Group record in the 100 backstroke – starting heavy expectations that one day he would take over the torch as the world’s best backstroker.
His strong family support system and level headedness has allowed Murphy the flexibility of knowing that pressure (mostly from media) doesn’t have to dictate his definition of success or his happiness with the sport of swimming.
Based on his strong performance at last year’s Olympic Trials (finals in both the 100 and 200 backstrokes – fourth and two spots from making the team in the 200) and bronze medal in the 200 backstroke at last December’s Short Course World Championships, Murphy knows he has the skills and competitive aptitude to be in the thick of his races in Indianapolis.
Just 17 at Trials last summer, Murphy admits he let the importance and enormity of the meet preclude him from swimming his best – particularly in the finals of the 200 back.
“I was swimming great throughout the meet,” Murphy said. “My 100 back was better than my goal time, and I was happy with my swims in the heats and semis in the 200. In the final, my nerves got to me, and I was swimming tense. I didn’t achieve the time I wanted, but the swim was a good learning experience.
“I have a much more laid back approach to swimming this year and haven’t gotten nervous for a race since Trials last year. I swim my best when I am relaxed, and that’s become evident this year.”
Megan Romano – More than a month after the last hand touched the wall at Olympic Trials last summer, Megan Romano was still angry with herself.
She knew she didn’t swim to her potential in Omaha – failing to make the team in all four of her events, a couple in which she felt she was a true contender.
After taking some time to reassess and correct what she calls a “mistaper” prior to Trials, Romano decided to throw herself back into competition – and take out her frustration upon her competitors at the U.S. Open in Indianapolis.
She went on to win four events – the 100 and 200 backstrokes, 100 and 200 freestyles and was runner-up in the 50 free – and qualified in all five events for this summer’s World University Games in Kazan, Russia.
At the 2011 World University Games in Shenzhen, China, she won bronze in the 400 free and anchored the gold-medal-winning 800 freestyle and silver-medal-winning 400 freestyle relays.
“I just wasn’t myself at Trials,” Romano said. “I felt weak and slow, and it kept me from swimming as fast as I know I can. It was really frustrating, and I left the meet very angry – mostly at myself.”
Despite her sluggish physical condition and subsequent performance, Romano did come within a few seconds of making her first Olympic team with a seventh-place finish in the finals of the 200 freestyle. The top six made the relay.
It was that swim and result that left her the most disappointed – especially since her time in the semifinal would have made the team.
At the same time, it also motivated her to work even harder and prove she belonged among the swimmers who made the team.
She’ll have a very busy meet this week in Indianapolis, where she’s one of the favorites in her events – seeded third in the 100 freestyle, fourth in the 200 free and 50 backstroke, fifth in the 100 and 200 backstrokes and seventh in the 50 free.
Romano’s swimming journey began as a 6-year-old whose parents signed her up for swimming lessons mostly for safety reasons. Living in St. Petersburg, Florida, and growing up near the water, Romano said it was a priority to them that she knew how to swim.
Over time, she blossomed into one of the top swimmers in her age group, setting a national age group record for 13-14 year olds in the 100 freestyle. After a stellar high school career – where she was named the MVP of her high school team all four years – Romano picked Georgia over several other schools. She finished her collegiate eligibility this spring by helping guide the Bulldogs to an NCAA title.
“It means so much to top off my whole career with an NCAA title,” said Romano, whose Bulldogs finished as the runner-up to Cal-Berkeley the previous two years.” Beyond that, I don’t know what I want to do – continue training and competing or doing something else. Right now, I’m just preparing for what’s coming this summer – whether that’s World University Games or World Championships.”
Watch the Phillips 66 National Championships live online at usaswimming.org/nationals or on your mobile device with the Deck Pass Plus mobile app.