Rachel Bootsma knows that if she wants to beat the world's best swimmers, she has to get a jump on the sunrise first. It isn't easy to leave a warm bed at 6 a.m. and drive in the dark to a suburban gym. But you can't hit the snooze button if you want to make the Olympic team, which was all the motivation the Eden Prairie swimmer needed on a frosty Friday morning.
Coach Kate Lundsten has mapped out a detailed course toward June's Olympic trials, when Bootsma, 18, will try to make the U.S. team in the 100-meter backstroke. Six days a week, Bootsma spends about three hours in the pool. She does an indoor cycling class on Tuesdays and Saturdays. And three mornings a week, she meets personal trainer Blake Freese for a 30- to 45-minute workout that targets her fast-twitch muscle fibers.
"I was a pretty dedicated kid,'' said Freese, who played football at Eden Prairie and Minnesota State Mankato before a brief pro career. "But when you see the work she's putting in, it's unbelievable.''
Freese's job is to train her lower body to deliver the quick burst of power a sprinter needs, particularly on starts and turns. While the 9-to-5 crowd sweats through its morning workouts, he and Bootsma head to a quiet part of the gym. She braces her upper back against a weight bench and places her feet flat on the floor, then steels herself as Freese lays a bar -- with about 68 pounds of iron and 40 pounds of heavy-gauge chain on each end -- across her lower abdomen.
Bootsma's legs tremble as she repeatedly thrusts her hips upward, completing her first set of the nonstop circuit. After a workout that includes push-ups with her shins resting on an exercise ball, rapid vertical jumps and other drills, Freese added some notes to the thick chart he keeps on a client who still is discovering her potential as an athlete.
In the fall of 2010 -- just before her 17th birthday -- Bootsma committed herself to doing whatever was necessary to join the uppermost ranks of American swimmers. Since then, she has become the third-fastest woman in history in the 100-yard backstroke, finished second in the 100-meter back at last summer's national championships and won two gold medals at last fall's Pan American Games.
The highly self-directed teen gets to bed by 9:30 every night. She is often on her way to the gym before her parents have put the coffee on. It takes a serious bout with a cold or the flu to keep her out of the pool, and even then, just one day on the couch makes her feel lazy.
"Some days, I'm so motivated and so on fire to work that I want to stay late,'' Bootsma said. "Other days, it's hard to get through it. But it's always in the back of your mind that everyone else is training and they want the same thing you want.
"There's not a day or an hour that goes by when I'm not thinking about my ultimate goal. I know I won't get there if I don't work hard. I know I won't get there if I don't make the right choices every day. That keeps me motivated.''
40,000 yards a week
Bootsma's training regimen is similar to that of other elite swimmers. She has been lifting weights and logging long hours in the pool since she was 13. Last fall, she added the cycling classes after learning that the swim team at the University of California, Berkeley -- which she will join in the fall -- does them to supplement endurance.
While many swimmers focus on high-yardage training, Lundsten emphasizes technique. Bootsma averages about 40,000 yards a week in the pool, with three days a week dedicated to sprinting. On the other three days, she refines her strokes, puts in more distance and does drills using resistance bands, buckets and medicine balls.
Though strength and stamina are important, Lundsten said, swimmers must strive for ideal technique so they can maximize their efficiency in the water. She scrutinizes Bootsma's form and rhythm throughout her workouts, while Bootsma fine-tunes the skills she will use in her races. Lundsten also devotes significant time to kicking, one of Bootsma's greatest strengths.
In a typical sprint workout, Bootsma will do sets of 100- or 200-yard swims in which she sprints for part of the distance, then rests for 15 seconds before going full-speed again.
"My races are 2 minutes, 15 seconds, max,'' she said. "You need to have an explosive start, react quickly and go all-out for a short period of time. And I need to hold my technique together at the end of the race, when I'm falling apart. All my training is geared toward that.''
That includes her work with Freese. When he began training her about 18 months ago, he wanted to create workouts specifically designed to build the explosive power she lacked. Freese wasn't familiar with swimming's mechanics, so he came to the pool, both to observe and to get in the water himself and develop a feel for it.
In close consultation with Lundsten, he drew up a menu of exercises. Freese, like Lundsten, constantly monitors how Bootsma feels and how she is performing, then tailors her workouts accordingly. He documents everything in a three-ring binder, so he can track the patterns that produce good results.
Freese stressed that the workouts aren't about raw strength, because Bootsma isn't competing in weightlifting. The object is to get her muscles firing quickly, allowing her to react swiftly and powerfully.
"What we're trying to do is teach her muscles how to do something,'' he said. "The second she jumps into the pool, she shouldn't have to think at all. She can just push. And she's such a good athlete that her body can pick up and understand these movements very quickly.''
Since starting with Freese, Bootsma said, the added strength has helped her technique. She can catch and hold more water, propelling her more efficiently with fewer strokes.
The fast-twitch workouts also have improved Bootsma's time and distance off the starting blocks, as well as her power off the walls -- which made a huge difference at last summer's national championships.
"At the start of the 100 back, she slipped,'' Lundsten recalled. "She was probably three-fourths of a body length behind before she even got going, but she was able to fight back. That night in the finals, her turn was the fastest in the world. That was that firing, that fast-twitch that Blake talks about. She's risen to a different level.''
A team affair
Bootsma laughs at the notion that swimming is an individual sport. She would not be making a run for the Olympic team without the help of each of her coaches and trainers, she said, and she might not be swimming at all if not for her Aquajets teammates.
Lundsten believes the dull, repetitive nature of the sport would have driven Bootsma to quit if she trained alone. But she usually shares the pool with a crowd of other young athletes, making practices both social and competitive.
"When she made the decision to swim, she became very self-motivated,'' Lundsten said. "But when she's by herself, she hates it.''
During a practice last month, Bootsma spent some of her time in the water chatting with teammates. She spent part of her time sizing them up, too.
When she sees another swimmer becoming faster, it inspires her to do the same, as does tracking the times of other elite swimmers around the country. Even in her cycling class -- where a video screen displays the calories burned, heart rate and other statistics for six bikes in the front row -- Bootsma usually is chasing something.
"Everyone's always racing during practice,'' she said. "There's always that unspoken thing of 'I beat you' or 'You beat me.' They push me every single day. And we're all here for each other. That makes things so much easier.''
In most years, Bootsma aims to peak for one major meet in the summer and one in the winter. This year, she is entirely focused on the Olympic trials. She has continued to train hard until a couple of days before the four meets she is competing in this spring, and she will not scale back until a few weeks before the trials begin June 25.
At that point, Bootsma might finally hit the snooze button on her alarm clock. Maybe.
"I only have one class at school and two online right now, so I can be really focused on swimming,'' she said. "That's how we planned it. I know what I have to do.''