The traffic-light-yellow numbers on the pool timer interface mark the passing seconds. Two timers rest on the pool deck, one at each end, and three other timers are mounted above the locker room pool entrances, right below the elevated stands. The 60-minute timers restart at the turn of the hour but otherwise do not give the actual time.
It is May 10 and nine swimmers, finally finished with their exam schedules, are paying close attention to the timer. Split into groups of two or three, each group cycles through a practice station in one-minute rotations.
The power circuit routine has the swimmers working on their speed, as part of Coach Howell’s overall practice regimen in preparing eight Emory swimmers for Olympic Team Trials qualification. There are racks, tall metal stands equipped with adjustable weights. Swimmers push off the wall after strapping on a belt connected to the weights, lifting the metal plates.
This creates resistance as they swim, though the racks’ connecting cable only goes 15 yards. Across from the racks are towers, a similar water-weightlifting contraption which extends to 25 yards and results in different bursts of speed than the racks.
Another station is a simple 15-yard sprint, while others involve 25-meter entry dives, 25-meter wall turns or a 25-yard underwater leg that works breath control. Every swimmer, regardless of station, starts at the zero-second mark of every minute, eyeing the timers. A sharp tweet of the whistle also signals that the last two digits of the timer have turned to zero.
Limbs fly, weights clatter and water splashes everywhere during the first half of every minute.
The next 20 seconds or so are more relaxed, as swimmers float over the lane dividers if the next station is accessible via water. If not, they must pop out of the pool and walk.
“Excuse me, Jon,” one swimmer playfully exclaims in the midst of her commute. Her path is blocked by “Jon,” or, to the general public, Head Coach Jon Howell, as he paces alongside the pool.A stopwatch twirls in one hand while the other fumbles with the whistle around his neck. The swimmer sidesteps Jon and hops back into the pool. There is constant chatter in the seconds leading up to the whistle blare. One swimmer wants to know his grades. Even Jon makes a quick aside to a swimmer who has just rotated nearby, though when everyone is getting set at their respective stations, and the seconds creep into the high-fifties, he quickly wraps up and, in one familiar motion, raises to whistle. The chit-chat quickly dies out in anticipation, and with a new minute, a new rotation begins.
Senior Claire Pavlak has already qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 50-meter freestyle event, and will compete July 1 in Omaha, Neb. The four other women’s swimmers aiming to qualify for Trials are juniors Anna Dobben, Leslie Hackler, Renee Rosenkranz, and sophomore Sadie Nenning. Senior Pat Augustyn, junior Miller Douglas and sophomores Ryan Bass and Jake Stephens are the four men’s swimmers attempting to qualify.
Dobben and Rosenkranz will compete in the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle events, with Dobben also swimming the 100-meter backstroke. Hackler’s events are the 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly, and Nenning’s events are the 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke. On the men’s side, Augustyn and Douglas will attempt to qualify in the 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly, with Douglass also swimming the 400-meter individual medley. Stephens also swims the 100-meter butterfly, as well as the 200-meter individual medley. Stephens is competing in the 50-meter freestyle event.
The men’s and women’s swimming season officially ended on March 24 at the NCAA Division III National Championships. The women’s team won the championship for the third year in a row, while the men’s team finished in the top three for the fourth straight year. In Division III there are usually postseason coaching and training restrictions, but this year the NCAA offered a blanket exemption which allows coaches to train Olympic Trial hopefuls throughout the trial qualifying period, which runs through the third weekend of June.
Olympic Trial qualifying cut times must be in long course meters, whereas NCAA competition is in short course yardage. Long course meets are along the 50-meter length of a pool, while lanes in the short course meets are along the 25-yard width of the pool. The trial cut time is converted into short course yards and swimmers within two percent qualify for the postseason exemption.
The U.S. Olympic Trials represents the highest level of achievement for swimmers, short of making the national team. Considered the fastest meet in the world, faster than the Olympics, nine world records were set in the 2008 Trials, also in Omaha. The likes of Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, and 45 year-old Dara Torres will all compete at Trials. The best sixteen individual times from the preliminary round in each event advance to the semifinal round, the best eight semifinal times advance to the final round where the top two swimmers make the national team.
Pavlak, who holds 20 All-American honors and nine individual NCAA national championships over her four years here, is the first Emory swimmer to qualify for Olympic Trials, swimming a 26.29 time. The qualifying time for the women’s 50-meter freestyle event is 26.39 seconds. Pavlak made the cut in a long course time trial a day after nationals on March 25 in Indianapolis.
“It was really unexpected for me to qualify,” Pavlak said. “I thought the national meet this year was going to be my last meet.”
At first, Pavlak declined to try out for Trials and she did not decide to swim until the day before the long course time trial. “My coach went around asking if anybody to wanted to enter and I said ‘I don’t think so,’” Pavlak said. “And then my head coach came over and said ‘I really think you should consider doing it. There’s nothing to lose. You should at least go for it.”
Pavlak was uncertain, not knowing the how close she was to qualify because Olympic Trials need to be qualified in long course meters. She went online to consult a few time convertor web sites, and discovered her short course time from nationals was, after conversion, under the qualifying cut.
“So at that point I said, ‘You know what, I am close to qualifying, so why not just try it.’”
The circumstance for the long course time trial to qualify for Trials in Indianapolis was far from ideal. After four days of emotionally and physically exhausting competition at nationals, Pavlak and the other Emory swimmers seeking to qualify for Trials also had to swim long course after an entire season swimming short course.
“They seem like they’d be the same but they really are very different,” Howell said. “We just totally shifted gears.”
“The main difference is the walls,” Nennig explains. “Take the 100-backstroke. I have three turns usually but in the long course I only have one. You really have to keep your strokes together a lot longer in long course, you can’t depend on the quick turns.”
The 50-meter freestyle in long course, Pavlak’s event, is a straight shot down the length of the pool. Erasing a flip turn was beneficial for Pavlak, as she loses the most ground on turns in short course races. At the time trial however, the long course was still disconcerting.
“We warmed up in [the long course pool] and all of us were laughing,” Pavlak said. “We were just saying ‘this is ridiculous, we have no idea where the wall is.’ I just put my head down and didn’t worry so much about where I was in the pool.”
The day before, the team also had to deal with ritual. In Pavlak’s case, she was the anchor in the final relay, the 400-meter freestyle. The Eagles defended their relay title and immediately after receiving their awards, the team awards ceremony began, which lasted 30 minutes.
“At that point I hadn’t been able to warm down and I could already feel my muscles getting kind of tight,” Pavlak said.
She was able to warm down briefly, but the team returned to the hotel at midnight after the team banquet. The swimmers were back in the pool, an unfamiliar long course meet with zero fanfare, at 6:30 the next morning.
“It was a quick turnaround,” Pavlak said.
While Pavlak made her cut, no other Eagle qualified for Olympic Trials at Indianapolis.
“They did a good job overall with it,” Howell said. “There was nothing to lose trying to make a cut at that point. I think for others it will be a better situation to train some long course and actually target a meet to make the cut.”
In the ensuing weeks the eight swimmers targeting Trials, along with Claire, will practice six days a week and weight lift three days a week. All but Nennig and Bass, who are returning home, will practice at Emory. Having focused on building an aerobic base the past several weeks, the focus will shift toward speed specific work.
The recent exam period threw everyone’s training schedule in flux, and so Howell is targeting the June 16, 17 Auburn Invitational to qualify for Olympic Trials. The plan is to rest the swimmers in preparation for Auburn meet after three to for weeks of training.
“The hope is we’ll have a couple others that’ll make cuts and Trials are a week or two after that,” Howell said.
The swimmers will gauge their progress have the opportunity to race in long course against University of Georgia next weekend and June 2 at Georgia Tech.
“All of us are pretty close but we’ve got a little bit to work on in terms of precision,” Rosenkranz said.
“For pretty much all of us, you snap your fingers and you got it,” Augustyn said.
— Contact Vincent Xu