By Anya Vanecek
For most division III student-athletes, ‘Olympian’ is a long-forgotten aspiration. This summer, Michael Brus ’14, Claire Williams ’13 and Claire Forrest ’13 each had to rework that goal into their four-year plan when they qualified for the Olympic and Paralympic trials. Deidre Freeman, the Grinnell diving coach, also competed at the Olympic trials. Only days after the Grinnell season ended, they were back in the pool, training to compete against the fastest swimmers and divers in the nation and the world.
Claire Williams is already one of them—she entered the S9 200 meter butterfly ranked first in the world. At the Paralympic trials, she swam against swimmers on the USA Residence team and gave one competitor a run for her money during the 100 meter butterfly. Williams also competed in the 400 freestyle, 100 backstroke, 200 individual medley and 200 butterfly—earning world rankings in all but the medley. She also holds American records in the 500 and 1000 yard freestyle—the first she broke by accident. This season, however, Williams has clear goals to improve on both her record times and to break a few more.
Following this season at Grinnell, Williams plans to retire. Training at such a competitive level requires a level of rigor that she says is nearly impossible without built-in training and the support of her teammates.
All three swimmers trained together throughout the spring and summer, providing each other with welcome support.
“It was the toughest training of my life,” Brus said. “I’m so glad [Williams and Forrest] were there, otherwise I don’t know if I would have been able to do it.”
Indeed, it is one thing to pull yourself through hours of laps across an icy pool with a sixty of your closest friends—it is quite another to attempt to do so by free will alone. Yet, with support from each other and Coach Erin Hurley, they not only trained up to the pace of some of the fastest swimmers in the nation, but they did so in a near-empty pool after a full day of classes.
While you may have heard of some of Brus’ competitors, Brus had a celebrity moment of his own at the trials. Brus was approached by a young boy for his autograph, which he humbly described as a highlight of his experience—not knowing who would make it to the Olympics, kids often ran up to the swimmers, just in case.
“I signed his shirt!” Brus said.
Indeed, there were a lot of would-be Olympians on the deck with Brus that weekend. He was surprised to find that no entourages surrounded anyone; at the Olympic trials, he was an equal to the swimmers he’d cheered on at Beijing and Athens. Still, Brus expressed disbelief at the whole experience. Swimming at the trials had been a dream of his since he was a child.
“As time went on, I went ‘you know, not many people make it to the Olympics’… and so I just put that out of my mind,” he said.
Just to swim the 200 backstroke, although not as quickly as he would have liked, was a huge accomplishment itself. And to be fair, ranking 75th in the nation is no small feat.
Despite his lingering awe, Brus expects more of himself now that he has proven just how much potential he has. He does not want to project those new aspirations prematurely, but he does intend to continue competing as long as he can.
Unlike her teammates, Claire Forrest is no stranger to the high-level Paralympic swimming scene. She competed at the 2008 Paralympic trials and has been swimming at this level since high school. This time around, she swam the 400 free, 100 free, 50 free and 100 back. For her, the experience was pleasantly nostalgic.
“It was fun to see how people progressed through the years,” she said, especially those of the friends she has made with her fellow swimmers.
Unfortunately, due to the Paralympic categories (she swims either S5 or S6, depending on the event) Forrest did not make the resident team, which disappointed her. However, she did not let the obstacles of classification derail her.
“It was the best meet I’ve ever had,” she said.
Deidre Freeman also dove exceptionally well at her first Olympic trials, placing 4th in synchronized diving (with her partner Veronic Rydze) and 18th overall. She credits her performance to both familiarity with her competitors’ techniques and her skillful physical preparation. However, she aspires to improve her mental preparation.
“I have to focus on not focusing too hard during meets,” Freeman said, via email.
Following a two-month break from diving, Freeman said she feels more motivated and hopes to continue to improve and compete at further national and international competitions as she prepares for the 2016 Olympic trials.
Freeman, Forrest, Brus and Williams gave Grinnell serious athletic credit with their performances at the Olympic and Paralympic trials. Four athletes from the same division III school are a rare sight.
“We made a big impression,” Williams said.