By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
In the Texas A&M media guide last fall, when asked where she would go if she could go anywhere in the world Breeja Larsen answered “The Olympics.”
Now, after a stellar yet somewhat surprising upset of world champion Rebecca Soni last week to win the 100 breaststroke at Olympic Trials, Larson is making good on those travel plans.
But her breakthrough swim in Omaha – which came less than four months after another milestone performance at NCAA Championships – wasn’t a surprise to Larson or her coach, Steve Bultman.
To them, her win was a natural progression that started the first day she arrived in College Station as an inexperienced by talented freshman.
“She wasn’t recruited out of high school because she didn’t swim year-round and has only really swum seriously for a couple of years, but when I met her and saw her swim, I knew she had a lot of potential,” said Bultman, head coach of the Aggies and an assistant coach on this year’s women’s Olympic team.
“Brad (Hering) at Mesa Aquatics Club told me about her, and I always listen to the club coaches because I was a club coach and I know they have first-hand knowledge about some swimmers that isn’t visible to everyone else. He saw something special in Breeja.”
While he admits she was “extremely raw” her first semester at A&M and he and his coaches had to do a lot of refining with her starts and kicking, in particular, Bultman said it was obvious right away that Larson wanted to learn and improve.
She had never done dryland training or weights, and her first semester focused on building her strength – without doing a lot of work in the water. He combined her out-of-water work with in-pool training and coaching, and within a couple of months, Bultman said the changes were visible and rather significant.
“She’s fearless,” Bultman said. “She’s not afraid to get in the water and race anyone. It doesn’t matter who she is or what she’s accomplished – Breeja is excited to compete. What made her successful pretty much right away was that she bought into what we had in mind for her and embraced the work we knew it would take to get her where she could be.”
It didn’t take long for Larson to start proving Bultman’s gut instinct right on. In her first meet after intensive dryland work, she dropped more than a second from her previous best time in the 100 breast. By the end of her freshman season, she was regularly breaking 1 minute, setting four A&M records and finishing second in both the 100- and 200-yard breaststroke events at NCAAs.
A year later back at NCAAs as a sophomore, she showed even more improvement – and the promise that would make her a champion at Olympic Trials – when she broke Tara Kirk’s six-year-old NCAA, U.S. Open and American (yards) record by almost a full second to win the 100 breast at NCAAs.
Not bad for someone who decided after her freshman NCAA tournament that she would “give it another year” before deciding if she wanted to continue training and swimming.
“Coming into Texas A&M as a freshman, I was really bad at practicing, and I was behind everyone else,” said Larson, the oldest of six sisters. “Steve really took a risk by recruiting me. I was the slowest kicker, but he’s really helped get me where I am now.”
Something else that Larson said motivated her to keep training and competing and ultimately never giving up no matter what was a cancer scare last summer that gave her a new perspective about life and swimming.
While celebrating July 4 at a friend’s house, her friend’s mom noticed some protruding lumps in her throat while she chewed food. She joked with her coach that she couldn’t swim anymore and that she was dying, but he urged her to get them checked out.
That day, Larson went to the emergency room, and the doctor did a biopsy on the lumps. It would be two weeks later that she learned they were benign, but in the meantime not knowing if she had cancer weighed heavily on her day-to-day and swimming decisions.
“That turned out be the biggest second chance for me because I knew that lumps in the thyroid have the highest rate of being cancerous,” Larson said. “Now, I get them checked regularly. It’s a very scary thing.”
With Olympic Trials behind her, Larson said she can now focus on working on the little things that could determine whether or not she medals in London. Whatever happens next month at the Olympics, however, Larson said she is living a swimming dream at one time she never thought would be possible.
“I knew swimming was going to be what would eventually get me to a college scholarship, but I figured I’d maybe go Division II – never a program like Texas A&M,” Larson said. “I owe a lot to Steve for taking a chance on me when no one else did. I want to make him, my family and everyone else who has supported me and my swimming very proud at the Olympics.”