LONDON - After being in the city for nearly a week, Rachel Bootsma will get her star turn in London beginning Sunday. The Eden Prairie teen will swim in the preliminaries -- and, if all goes well, the semifinals -- of the women's 100-meter backstroke at the Olympic Games.
The offstage time seems to be passing all too swiftly, even for a girl who lives to go fast. Bootsma, 18, sweated and sacrificed for four years to get to this moment. And it will flash by in less than three minutes of swimming at most, spread over two days in the Aquatic Center in London's Olympic Park.
That is the cruel calculus faced by every Olympic athlete. After a training session Saturday morning, Bootsma said she never has been so excited for a race. At the same time, she does not want this slice of her life to end, even though she will begin a new adventure at college in only a few weeks.
Since winning her spot on the team with a second-place finish in last month's Olympic trials, Bootsma has been tutored by her future college coach, Teri McKeever, and mentored by longtime idol Natalie Coughlin. She has trained at Olympic team camps in Tennessee and France with many of the world's best swimmers. Strangers have asked her for autographs, and even her mother and grandmother were approached by fans at the trials in Omaha.
With the fourth-fastest time in the world this year, Bootsma is in the hunt to win a medal. Already, she has been overwhelmed by the emotions that come with making the Olympic team. It was one thing to dream about it for much of her lifetime. It is quite another to find that living it surpasses everything she imagined it might be.
"I never expected anything like this," said Bootsma, who set a personal best of 59.10 seconds in the semifinals at the trials. "I never expected the Olympics would be so cool and so amazing. I've never felt this way before, to be so excited to race and so excited to be here.
"But it's kind of bittersweet. It already feels like it's almost over, because once the meet starts, every day gets you closer to the end. I just want to soak it all up."
Plenty of support
Brief as it might seem, Bootsma's Olympic experience will be shared by a posse of friends and relatives. Her parents, Rob and Jan, and sister, Katie, arrived in London on Saturday afternoon. Back home, the mother of an Aquajets teammate has about 40 people coming to her home for a viewing party, and Jan Bootsma -- who works in the Minnetonka school district -- said little work will be done there during the 59 seconds it takes Rachel to swim each of her races.
Bootsma's coach, Kate Lundsten, got a happy surprise. She expected to watch the races from the stands, but USA Swimming arranged for her to be on the pool deck when Bootsma swims. That's a particularly sweet reward for a woman who has coached her since Bootsma was 10 years old, guiding the group effort of building an Olympian.
"I knew she had the ability to do it, but it's still hard to believe," Lundsten said. "When you think of the math, of how many swimmers there are in the United States and how few make the Olympic team, I just thought, 'Wow. She did it.' So many people put in so much time and effort, and it worked out."
Bootsma's parents almost missed the moment she was officially named to the team. That happened on short notice a couple of days after her event -- on a night when they had given away their trials tickets and made plans for a quiet dinner. They were able to get a pair, but not before 45 minutes of frantic searching.
The family has fielded loads of media requests since then. The Aquajets threw Bootsma a party, and she has been invited to throw out the first pitch at a Twins game in the days between her return from the Olympics and her departure for her freshman year at the University of California.
"I haven't gotten any work done since the trials, because this is all anyone wants to talk about," Jan Bootsma said. "Minnesota really loves its Olympians, which is nice for her."
Bonding with teammates
Shortly after the trials, Bootsma began her tenure with the Olympic team. At the camps, she has made new friends and grown closer to previous ones. She has gotten guidance from McKeever, who will coach the American women at the Olympics before coaching Bootsma at Cal this fall.
Bootsma said she was extremely nervous when the camps began. McKeever's emphasis on team bonding, and the older swimmers' assistance and friendship, helped her work through that. She now is feeling her usual anxiousness to race, and she said she feels strong and well-prepared.
Bootsma's friend Missy Franklin is among the favorites in the 100 back. She won the trials and swam 58.85 in the semifinals, the world's fastest time this year. Other top swimmers include Zhao Jing of China, the 2011 world champion; Anastasia Zueva, the Russian national champion whose 58.97 is just behind Franklin's mark; and Japan's Aya Terakawa, third in the world this year with a time of 59.08.
Friday night, as most American athletes enjoyed the Opening Ceremony from the floor of Olympic Stadium, Bootsma watched it on TV with other swimmers in the athletes' village. She chose not to participate because she needed to rest for her races.
But in watching her fellow Olympians prepare for their parade, she felt immensely proud -- if a little astonished -- to be among them.
"The Opening Ceremonies were going on right outside my room," she said. "I can't even describe what that was like to see. I've never experienced anything like this, and it gave me goose bumps.
"It's all been completely amazing, more than I expected it to be. It's a life-changing experience."