OMAHA - On the night before she would swim for a place on the U.S. Olympic team, Rachel Bootsma didn't want to think about what might happen Wednesday night in Omaha. Instead, she chose to think about the riches she already had.
She had made it to the finals in the women's 100-meter backstroke at the Olympic trials, where she would race alongside her good friend Missy Franklin. Her parents, her sister Katie and her coach, Kate Lundsten, were all there to cheer her at CenturyLink Center. "I just sat back and realized that even if I don't make it, I have so much to be grateful for,'' Bootsma said. "It would just be icing on the cake.''
She will be coming home to Minnesota with an extra-large slice, thanks to a runner-up finish that earned her a spot on the Olympic team. Bootsma, 18, seized second place early in the race and held on to it, touching the wall just after Franklin set an American record. Franklin, 17, finished in 58.85 seconds, trimming .09 of a second off the mark Natalie Coughlin set in 2008. Bootsma swam a 59.49 to beat Coughlin, the two-time Olympic gold medalist in the event.
Coughlin finished third, meaning she will not have the chance to defend her Olympic title in the 100 back. Bootsma will represent the United States in London alongside Franklin, who was her roommate on her first trip with the U.S. national team. When the two friends looked up at the scoreboard, they embraced and began screaming, "We did it! We did it!''
And yet, a few minutes after the race, Bootsma still struggled to comprehend what she had just accomplished. "It still isn't real to me,'' she said. "I am so beyond happy right now.
"I don't really remember what happened [in the race]. All I know is I'm hurting really, really badly right now. I probably could have swum a little smarter, but I just had too many nerves. But I can't complain. I made it to London.''
Though Bootsma has said throughout the trials that she was extremely nervous, that hasn't been visible in her body language -- or in her results. She appeared powerful and confident from her first event, Monday's 100 butterfly, and seemed to gain strength with every race.
Bootsma and Franklin wowed the crowd Tuesday with their can-you-top-this swims in the semifinals of the 100 back. Bootsma threw down a career-best 59.10 in the first heat, while Franklin countered in the second with a 59.06. Those were the second- and fourth-fastest times in the world this year, setting the stage for a highly anticipated final.
Braden Keith of the SwimSwam blog proclaimed their rivalry an epic in the making. His post also included the hashtag #RachelWhootsma?, an indication of how surprised some were by Bootsma's lights-out swim.
As pleased as she was with her early races, Bootsma also knew her work had just started, and she knew she needed to stay cool until it was finished. Her mother, Jan -- who struggled mightily to keep her own anxiety under control -- didn't see much of Rachel in the hours before the final. But she saw enough to believe her daughter was in exactly the right frame of mind.
"She's acting really calm,'' Jan Bootsma said late Wednesday afternoon. "But maybe that's just the calm before the storm. I think she's prepared to attack it.''
Bootsma had been scheduled to swim the preliminaries of the 200 individual medley Wednesday morning. She skipped that race in favor of some extra rest, while Franklin took on a tough combination. She swam in the preliminaries of the 200 freestyle, then competed in the semifinals -- only 20 minutes before the finals of the 100 back.
Franklin said she knew Bootsma would go out fast, as she always does. Coughlin tore through the first 50 meters in 28.50 seconds, with Bootsma on her tail in 28.55 and Franklin in fourth. While Coughlin faded, Franklin blasted home in 29.74, with Bootsma clocking a back half of 30.94 to hang on to second.
"It was so much fun being able to race Rachel,'' said Franklin, who is expected to compete -- and perhaps medal -- in multiple events in London. "I've waited so long for this. I can't believe it's happening.''
Neither could Bootsma's family and friends. In the lobby of a hotel across the street from the arena, 50 of them were waiting for her to finish postrace drug testing so they could toast her.
"We're ecstatic,'' Jan Bootsma said. "We're incredulous. It was a little too close for comfort, but she did what she needed to do.''