Several USMS members competed at U.S. Olympic Trials in June
The recent U.S. Olympic Trials included several dozen current or former U.S. Masters Swimming members who were either competing there for the first time, or were seasoned pros at the most intense swimming competition in the United States. We spoke with four of those Masters swimmers, each who had a different perspective on competing in Omaha in June.
Darian Townsend knows the rush that an athlete feels when selected to represent his or her country at the Olympic Games. Townsend swam for his native South Africa at the 2004, 2008, and 2012 Olympics, and owns a gold medal from the world record-setting 400-meter freestyle relay at the 2004 Games. Though Townsend lived and trained in the United States after 2004 (first at the University of Florida, then later at the University of Arizona), he continued to represent his home nation at the Olympics and other major international meets.
But that all changed in 2014 when Townsend stood in a room in Phoenix and pledged his allegiance to the United States, thereby becoming an American citizen. He says he wanted to swim for what he calls “the best swimming nation in the world.” That meant he would have to compete at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2016 if he wanted to return to the world’s biggest sporting stage.
Townsend says the experience of the U.S. Trials was far different from what he experienced at previous South African Olympic Trials. The CenturyLink Center held more than 13,000 spectators; in South Africa, they didn’t have a third of that. And the depth of talent in the United States meant there was more pressure on Townsend to qualify for the freestyle relay, raising the stakes immensely for him.
“It literally felt like the Olympic Games,” Townsend says. “It didn’t feel like any other swim meet, and I think that got to me. I felt like it was a show more than anything.”
Townsend didn’t perform to his expectations at Trials and was unable to place in the top 20 in the 100 and 200 freestyles. Now 31, he’s pondering his future as an elite swimmer. In the short term, Townsend has his eye on competing with the world’s best at the FINA Grand Prix meets around the world. But his days as a Masters swimmer are not over.
“I’d love to continue in Masters swimming,” he says, adding that swimming in his first Masters meet in 2013, “kind of got me hungry (to compete) again and it’s something I want to continue to do going forward. I don’t want to get out of shape, and I feel that swimming puts me in the best shape. If I look at it from that perspective, it will make getting up to swim on those early mornings a little easier.”
This year marked Erika Erndl’s fifth trip to the Olympic Trials, an astonishing accomplishment that only three other American swimmers have achieved. Unlike in Trials past, Erndl’s 2016 expectations didn’t include the possibility of making the Olympic team. The 38-year-old is less than two years removed from giving birth to son Asher, and only seriously considered qualifying for Trials at her mother’s insistence about a year ago.
“I knew I was going to get back into the water, but I had gained so much weight (during the pregnancy),” Erndl says. “It was definitely not easy.”
Erndl attempted to qualify for Trials in the 50 and 100 freestyle, as well as the 100 butterfly. When she barely made the cut in the 100 fly at a meet in May, she fought to keep her emotions in check and focus on qualifying in the sprint freestyle events.
“When I didn’t make the times I needed in the 50 and 100 (free), it was only then that I allowed myself to be happy that at least I got to go in the 100 fly,” she says.
Erndl, who won a silver medal in the 100 free at the 2011 Pan American Games, matched her seed times at Trials. She placed 66th in the 100 fly with a 1:00.95.
But she’s not going to take a break. Erndl has been studying the FINA Masters world records for her 35-39 age group, and said she’ll be training hard with the T2 Aquatics team in Naples, Fla., to etch her name in the record books.
“I’m super competitive,” she says, “so shooting for these records is something that really gets me fired up.”
Trevor Hoyt had more fun finishing 97th in the 200 breaststroke at the 2016 Trials than he did placing seventh in the same event in 2012. He attributes that change in experience to embracing a much more laidback attitude than he had four years ago.
“Everyone there (at Trials) is so intense and buckled down, and anyone who knows me knows I’m not like that,” Hoyt says. “I wanted to try to promote the feeling of swimming fun and swimming fast. I didn’t swim fast, but I had the best time out of any of the breaststrokers at the meet.”
Hoyt, 25, had a tough return journey to the Olympic Trials this year. In 2014, he left his longtime training base at the University of California, Berkeley, and searched for a swim team that could help him continue to reach his goals. He found that this past January at the Golden Road Aquatics Masters team in his native southern California.
Although Hoyt was well off his best times in the 100 and 200 breaststrokes in Omaha this year, he never allowed himself to feel negative about the experience. He enjoyed a laugh with fellow breaststroker Mike Alexandrov after subpar performances in the 200 breast and walked away from the meet feeling just as happy as those who made the Olympic team.
“A lot of the guys after their races looked so dejected,” says Hoyt, an NCAA runner-up in the 200 breast in 2012. “They were looking down at their feet. I wasn’t going to be like that.”
The highlight of Olympic Trials for Hoyt was seeing six swimmers from his alma mater qualify for the Olympic team. Hoyt was most excited for former teammate Tom Shields, who qualified for the Olympics in both butterfly events.
“I have known Tom since I was 9 years old, and I’m glad that Tom has broken through that barrier and made the Olympic team,” he says. “I was almost in tears when he made the team.”
Hoyt, who will compete in the Southern Pacific Masters long course championships in August, said he was also buoyed by the support of family and friends at Trials. Seeing his girlfriend and parents in the crowd helped erase any bad feelings he had after seeing his times on the scoreboard.
“It’s impossible to feel down when you have such a happy and supportive group around you,” he says.
Those who know W. John Wagner were likely surprised that the 25-year-old swam the 50 and 100 freestyle events at his first Olympic Trials in 2016. Wagner was a standout in the middle-distance events at Texas A&M University, but in his final two years of collegiate competition he started to veer from the 200-yard distances for the shorter events.
“I started sneaking myself onto sprint relays,” he says. “I was always trying to convince my coaches to make that move to some of the shorter stuff.”
After swimming 20.66 in a 50-yard freestyle at his first Masters meet in 2015, the seed was planted for Wagner to consider qualifying for Trials as a sprint freestyler. He earned his place at Olympic Trials just one year before the meet, swimming a 23.06 in the 50-meter freestyle. He’d been training regularly with Rice Masters in Houston on the advice of friends, and his commitment to training led to qualification in the 100 freestyle just five months before Trials.
“I’ve been having a lot of fun with it,” Wagner says of his new life as a full-fledged sprinter. “It’s amazing how the sport can continue being fun at this age.”
Although he had never competed in a meet with more than 1,000 spectators before, Wagner says the feeling of stepping onto the deck at the CenturyLink Center and seeing nearly 14,000 people in the arena wasn’t overwhelming.
“It was just a validation of everything I had done since I was 9 years old and everything my coaches have helped me do,” he says. “I have to pinch myself every now and then because I didn’t think I would go to my first Trials three years after college while swimming in Masters and working a full-time job.”
Wagner is looking far ahead to the future for his next swimming goal, aiming to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Trials. He said swimming three to five times a week with Rice Masters has helped him feel a different energy toward competitive swimming, and he’s excited to see what he can do in the pool.
“I’ll swim at the World Championship Trials and Masters Nationals before (the 2020 Olympic Trials),” Wagner says. “But I really think I have it in me to get back to Trials in four years.”
- Human Interest