By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Every four years at the Olympic Trials, there are more new faces in the water than familiar ones, and this year in Omaha, that will once again be the case. Here are five who could make a big splash – and potentially the 2012 Olympic Team.
5. Kyle Owens – Fresh from finishing his senior season at Auburn, Kyle Owens should be a swimmer to watch in the 100 and 200 backstroke and 200 individual medley events at 2012 Olympic Trials next month in Omaha.
In the final races of his NCAA career, he finished fourth in the 100 back (second year in a row) and eighth in the 200 IM – this after a fantastic fourth-place finish in the 100 back at last summer’s Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships that earned him a spot on his first U.S. National Team. His time of 54.30 was the seventh-fastest in the country over the past two years.
Owens also made it to the consolation final of the 200 back, finishing 12th in 2:01.03 to own one of the 15 fastest times in the country. He finished his Auburn career with more than seven All-America honors and should be a finalist in the 100 back at Trials against a loaded field headlined by Matt Grevers, Ryan Lochte, Nick Thoman and David Plummer, among others.
4. Ashley Steenvoorden – It wasn’t long ago that Ashley Steenvoorden was just another swimmer. At the conclusion of her high school career, she had never made a National team or earned an Olympic Trials cut but was determined to do whatever she needed to reach those goals.
Now, with her final season as a Minnesota Golden Gopher finished, she has earned a spot on her first U.S. National Team and will be a force in the distance freestyles at Olympic Trials. She and Minnesota Coach Kelly Kremer discussed developing a four-year plan, outlining training and goals that they both wanted to achieve to help her reach her dream of being an Olympian.
Under Kremer’s tutelage, Steenvoorden has surpassed her early expectations by not only making the final of the 500 freestyle at last summer’s Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championship but by winning the event for her first national championships. This followed fourth-place finishes in the 500 and 1650 at last year’s NCAA Championships, and she added another fourth-place finish in the 1650 this year at her final NCAA meet.
With strong showings at international meets last year – the Pan American Games and Duel in the Pool, where she finished fifth in the 800 freestyle – Steenvoorden should challenge in both the 400 and 800 free events at Trials against strong competition from 2008 Olympians Kate Ziegler and Chloe Sutton and teenager and 2011 Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Champion (800 freestyle) Gillian Ryan.*
(* Information from "Countdown to Omaha: Ashley Steenvoorden," by Emily Sampl, pubilished on www.collegeswimming.com.
3. Sean Mahoney – Sean Mahoney has overcome a lot in the past couple of years, most notably the absence of competition and potential stigma of a six-month suspension from competition in late 2010 and early 2011 due to a positive test for a banned stimulant.
But as one of the strongest contenders for a spot on this summer’s U.S. Olympic Team headed to London, the 2011 Pan American Games 200 breaststroke champion (in a Games record time of 2:11.62) is ready to put all of that behind him and focus on the opportunity that lies ahead. Earlier in the summer, he finished third in the 200 breast at the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships.
After finishing 10th in the 200 breast at the 2008 Olympic Trials, Mahoney knows he has just as good a shot at taking one of the top two spots as anyone else against a field that welcomes back a rejuvenated Brendan Hansen and 2000 Olympian Ed Moses but is wide open. Watch for Mahoney to not only make the finals but challenge for a spot on the podium and the team.
2. Rachel Bootsma – Along with the responsibilities and stresses of high school, Rachel Bootsma has embraced the expectations of being one of the best backstrokers in the world. It’s a far cry from where she was four years ago as a bright-eyed eighth-grader ready for her first year of high school who finished 35th in the 100 back at 2008 Olympic Trials.
Fast-forward four years, and Bootsma, who will swim for the two-time defending NCAA Champion Cal-Berkeley Bears this fall, is ranked 9th in the world (1:00.02) in the 100 back and is a favorite to make the Olympic Team next month in Omaha.
She started making her move a year after 2008 Trials when she won the 100 back at the 2009 U.S. Open and led off the 400 medley relay team, becoming the first junior national swimmer to break one minute in the 100 back. A year later, she finished third at the 2010 Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships, and last summer, she was the runner-up in the same event at Nationals.
1. Adam Small – Along with having learned more about a foreign country and culture, Adam Small left China and the World University Games last summer also having learned a valuable lesson about competitive swimming.
While winning silver in the 50 freestyle proved a tremendous achievement for him, coming so close to gold was tough to swallow but was motivational. “I was fairly disappointed losing by such a small margin,” Small said. “I had an excellent start and was feeling great during the race, but because I was so far ahead of my opponent, I started to glance over at him, losing my focus on what I was doing.”
Still, making the U.S. World University Games team – his first senior-level international team – and winning a medal proved a career-changing accomplishment for the young man who grew up idolizing sprint great and recent Swimming Hall of Fame inductee Gary Hall, Jr.
With his NCAA career complete, Small is now focused squarely on Olympic Trials next month in Omaha. He has worked on improving his overall technique and added some more muscle to his frame – to put himself in the best position to contend for a spot on the Olympic Team.
"I've wanted to swim in the Olympics since the fifth grade," said Small, who plays guitar and is a video game fiend. "I think I have just as good of a shot at making the team in my event as anyone else. The 50 is such a crapshoot that at that level, anything can happen.”