Rachel Bootsma dares to dream her Olympic dream

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 22, 2012 - 10:33 PM

High school senior Rachel Bootsma has big plans for this summer as she builds on her position as one of the best young swimmers in the country.

As a swimming coach, Kate Lundsten is in the business of encouraging hopes and dreams. Still, when she considered the goal Rachel Bootsma had just put in front of her, Lundsten couldn't help but think her star pupil had gotten way ahead of herself.

At age 13, Bootsma had already set Minnesota age-group records. Her first coach had predicted she would become a state champion. But to reach her aim of making the 2008 Olympic trials in the 100-meter backstroke, she would have to cut two seconds off her time in short order. "I told her, 'That's a great goal,'" Lundsten recalled. "And I was thinking, 'There is no way this little 13-year-old is going to make it.'"

That would be the last time Lundsten would doubt her. Bootsma competed in those Olympic trials as a starstruck, petrified teen, one of the youngest swimmers at the meet. In June, the senior at Eden Prairie High School will return to the trials as one of the most heralded backstrokers in the United States.

Now 18, Bootsma knows her latest goal -- making the U.S. team that will swim at this summer's London Olympics -- is every bit as daunting as the one she set four years ago. But she has become stronger, wiser and more experienced since then, while maintaining her unquenchable desire to win.

To make the team in her signature event, the 100-meter backstroke, Bootsma must finish first or second at the trials in a field thick with talent. Her rivals include Natalie Coughlin, the 2004 and 2008 Olympic gold medalist in the 100 back, and Missy Franklin, the 2011 U.S. champion and winner of three gold medals in last summer's world championships.

But Bootsma's growing résumé is plenty impressive, too. By finishing second to Franklin in the 100 backstroke at the national championships, she won a place on the U.S. team for last fall's Pan American Games, where she won gold medals in the 100 back -- in a meet-record time of 1 minute, 0.37 seconds -- and the 4x100 medley relay. In 2010, she set the national high school record in the 100-yard backstroke with a time of 51.53 seconds.

A six-time state high school champion, Bootsma skipped her senior prep season to concentrate on training for the Olympic trials. Though she has been called one of the best backstroke sprinters in the world, she understands that her drive, confidence and years of grueling training do not guarantee a place on the team.

"If I make it, it would be incredible and amazing and everything I could ever ask for," said Bootsma, who will join the swim team at the University of California, Berkeley -- famous for developing backstrokers such as Coughlin -- in the fall. "If I don't, it's only 2012. I still have 2016 and hopefully 2020. It would be great, but people don't realize it's almost an impossible task."

The adults in her life, however, know better than to sell her short. The summer she made her first Olympic trials, her father, Rob Bootsma, thought she might have reached her peak.

"She swam a 1:03 to qualify," he recalled. "We were at another meet, and I commented that she may never swim a 1:03 again. That might have been her day, her race.

"Of course, she did. We're not really surprised any more by how much she can achieve."

Built for success

A member of the national team for the past two years, Bootsma also competes in freestyle sprints, the 100 and 200 butterfly and the 200 individual medley. She has qualified to swim five events at the Olympic trials, which begin June 25 in Omaha.

At 5 feet 8, with a long torso and ultra-flexible shoulders, she is built for the backstroke. Her career-best time of 59.65 in the 100 back is about three-fourths of a second shy of Coughlin's American record of 58.94, and it is the fastest ever swum by an American girl in the 17-18 age group. In both the 50 and 100 backstroke, Bootsma is among the swiftest American women of all time, while her 100-yard backstroke time of 50.76 makes her the third-fastest woman ever in that event.

Jon Foss saw it coming. An All-America swimmer at St. Olaf College and founder of Foss Swim School, he was marveling at the advanced skills of 5-year-old Katie Bootsma when he got a look at her little sister. At age 4, Rachel had graduated to the school's highest level faster than any child ever had.

A few years earlier, Foss had coached another young swimming phenom: Kris Humphries, who set national age-group records and beat Michael Phelps long before he moved on to the NBA and the Kardashian household. Foss knew talent, and he was convinced Rachel would be in the same class as Humphries.

"She had the backstroke technique when she was 8, and her kick was world-class at a very young age," he said. "I thought, 'This is the mother lode.'

"When she was 4, I walked over to her parents during a lesson and said, 'This girl will be a state champion. You must put her on a swim team someday.' Three years later, she came on the team when we started the Aquajets, and she qualified for the state meet in her first swim."

Not bad for a girl who learned to swim just so she wouldn't drown in the ocean. Rob and Jan Bootsma lived in Florida when Rachel and Katie were toddlers; concerned about their safety around the water, they started the girls in lessons at a YMCA.

Expecting them to be tall and lithe, Jan thought they might follow her path to basketball or volleyball. Rachel did play basketball briefly and had a longer fling with soccer. Despite her ability to quickly absorb swimming's technical complexities, she recalled losing several races in her first year of competition and considered quitting.

Her parents told her she would not be setting up residence on their couch. Bootsma stuck it out, and at age 10 she broke her first state record when she set an age-group mark in the 50-meter backstroke. Two years later, she quit soccer, committed herself to swimming and decided to concentrate on the backstroke.

The competition began to get much more serious around age 13, meaning Bootsma could no longer show up at the pool a couple of times a week and still collect medals. Lundsten expected her in the water six days a week, for practices that lasted two to three hours. Her current workload includes the same amount of time in the pool; thrice-weekly weightlifting sessions that begin at 6:30 a.m.; and indoor cycling workouts twice a week.

She initially put in the time but not necessarily the effort -- until she set a meet record to win the 100-meter back at the junior national championships in Minneapolis, which opened her 14-year-old eyes to previously unthinkable possibilities.

"It was hard for me," Bootsma said. "I didn't like that all my friends were at home hanging out, not having to focus as much as I was after school every day. [The junior nationals] were the turning point for me. I wanted to work hard, and I wanted to get better and see where I could take myself."

Defining the dream

She already had been thinking about the Olympics, though getting there seemed incomprehensible. Bootsma finished 35th in the 100 back at the 2008 Olympic trials and swam a personal best, even as she gaped at idols such as Phelps and Coughlin.

As her times continued to drop, Bootsma made the junior national team and began traveling to meets all over the world. It became clear to her parents that she and Lundsten had begun ratcheting up their ambitions, though Rachel did not talk about it. She had become increasingly serious and focused late in 2010; she began working with a personal trainer and completely revamped her diet, cutting out school lunches and eating only healthy foods.

Finally, near the end of the year, Bootsma felt ready to say it out loud. She wanted to make the 2012 Olympic team, and Lundsten believed she was primed to take a major step toward that end.

"We knew from the training regimen she was setting up that she was working hard for something," Jan Bootsma said. "But she didn't tell anybody until she felt she could put it out there and it wouldn't be laughed at or wouldn't set her up for greater risk. She and her coach, that was it. When she said it, it was a relief, because you could actually talk about it and not dance around the whole concept."

The road to London

Bootsma had already dipped her toes into the waters inhabited by the world's best swimmers. In her first year on the U.S. national team, she competed in the 2010 Pan Pacific Games, dusting herself off after poor swims in two events to earn a tie for the bronze medal in the 50 back.

With each new experience, Bootsma became more familiar with the protocol and atmosphere of her sport's highest level. She was no longer speechless in the presence of her role models; now, when she saw Phelps or Coughlin, she greeted them as teammates. Just being there, however, was not enough.

The closer Bootsma got to her ultimate goals, the harder she wanted to work. In November 2010, she set the national high school record in the 100-yard back at the Class AA state meet, which drove her to see whether she could swim even faster. Four months later, in a performance Foss described as "bone-chilling," Bootsma lowered her time to 50.76 -- a half-second better than the winning time at that spring's NCAA championships.

That swim came at the 2011 junior nationals, where Bootsma earned a record nine gold medals. She jumped back in with the big fish at the U.S. championships that summer, when Lundsten got a new appreciation for how determined Bootsma had become.

Compromised by anxiety and inadequate rest, Bootsma swam poorly in her early events, then slipped on the start of her preliminary heat in the 100 backstroke. Instead of crumbling, she pulled herself together and made the finals, then won the silver medal with a personal-best time.

"She was a second and a half behind the field," Lundsten said. "I sat there thinking, 'Oh, no, what is she going to do?' She fought back. And I thought, 'Man, that kid's tough.' It's just not in her makeup to quit."

Katie Bootsma, a freshman on the swim team at Miami (Ohio), said she loves bragging about her sister. In October, she invited several friends to her dorm room to watch Rachel swim at the Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Gathered around a computer screen, they cheered and hollered as Rachel won her first international gold medal. Months later, Rachel still struggles to articulate what it meant to her to stand atop a podium, hearing her national anthem as her country's flag was raised. Stunned by her victory, she tried to smile and wave at a raucous crowd while choking back tears.

Though that feeling is not easily explained, it is impossible to forget. With the Olympics now coming into view, Bootsma said she has never felt more motivated to train.

Her parents frequently are asked whether she will make the team. They patiently explain that it will come down to one race in June, a 60-second sprint likely to be decided by a fraction of a second, with a phenomenal field chasing only two Olympic berths. Rachel already has told them she will be unbearably intense in the weeks before the trials, prompting her mother to joke that she doesn't expect to notice any difference.

Bootsma anticipates she could have her best shot at the Olympics four years from now, fortified by the strength, wisdom and experience yet to come. The past year, though, has given her license to dream.

"For me, making it to this point is a big enough accomplishment that I could walk away and be proud of myself," she said. "Everyone asks me, 'Oh, when are you going to the Olympics?' People don't realize that getting first or second at the Olympic trials is unreal.

"Deep down inside, I have that drive. I want to win. But I'm focusing on what I can do to make myself better and ultimately make myself a better person through this experience, knowing I gave every ounce of energy I have. And if I come out first, second, third, I can't complain."

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