Life beyond the pool

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

Rachel Bootsma doesn't regret missing proms while pursuing an Olympic dream.

As soon as Rachel Bootsma looked at the schedule, she made up her mind. The Eden Prairie senior would not be attending the all-night party following her high school graduation ceremony, no matter how much fun it might be.

The party is scheduled for June 8. That is two weeks before Bootsma will head to the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, where she will get her chance to make the team for this summer's London Olympics. She could think only of how tired she would be if she stayed up until 5 a.m. Her mother, Jan, worried more about how Rachel might feel years from now, when she considered the teenage rituals she bypassed as she built her life around swimming.

Bootsma, 18, never has attended a high school dance, because they always conflict with swim meets. Later this month, while her classmates make memories at prom, she will be competing in the 100-meter backstroke at a Grand Prix event in Charlotte, N.C. -- the same place she was during last year's prom. She doesn't date, she rarely goes to football games, and many friendships have faded away because she has no time to maintain them.

Given all that, Jan Bootsma talked her daughter into a compromise on the party. She got permission for Rachel to leave at midnight. Rachel reluctantly agreed to go, satisfying both of their goals: to keep her in touch with the normal rhythms of teenage life, while respecting her choice to commit herself to her sport.

"The party is really close to trials, and it does make me nervous," said Bootsma, second at last summer's national championships in the 100-meter backstroke and a top contender for the Olympic team. "But I don't think one night staying up until midnight will kill me.

"Sometimes I think, 'Will I regret the lifestyle I chose?' Sometimes, I do. Last year, all my friends were talking about prom, and that was hard for me. But I wouldn't trade what I have now for anything. I've experienced so much more than most people in my grade have ever experienced. I hope I'll still feel the same way in 10 or 20 years."

So do her parents. Their lives changed, too, when Rachel and her older sister, Katie, became elite swimmers.

Swim meets around the country have taken the place of family vacations. Bread and pasta have all but disappeared from the dinner table, and they regularly spend $750 on racing suits that last for only a few competitions. None of those things really feel like sacrifices, when they see how swimming has enriched the lives of their daughters.

"[Rachel] lives in a very different world than most kids her age," Jan Bootsma said. "I wish she could have experienced some of these other things, like prom. But we've always told her it's her deal, it's her gift, and she can do with it what she wants. She is so focused on her goals that these are the choices she's made."

A scheduled life

Bootsma's life follows a pattern familiar to elite teen athletes. Much of their time is consumed by workouts and competitions, throwing school schedules into chaos and making it all but impossible to participate in activities and clubs. Even hanging out with friends can fall by the wayside, another casualty of their highly regimented lifestyles.

Every week, Bootsma spends about 18 hours in the pool. About five more hours per week are devoted to weightlifting and indoor cycling, and she goes to bed around 9:30 p.m. Her schedule can take her out of school for days or weeks at a time; she recently spent three weeks training in Florida, and she has competed in Texas, Missouri and Mexico since the school year began.

With the Olympic trials happening this summer, Bootsma planned ahead, setting a light class schedule for this spring that enables her to concentrate fully on her training. While some young athletes take all their classes online, she has resisted that. Most of her schooling has come in Eden Prairie's classrooms, with the help of teachers and administrators who support her ambitions.

At the beginning of each quarter, Bootsma gives them a schedule outlining the dates when swimming will take her out of town. Her instructors then arrange for her to receive assignments or take tests early. Bootsma said some of her teachers balked at first; they didn't understand the demands of her sport, and they thought she was going on frequent vacations. Once they became familiar with it -- and realized the Olympics were the ultimate goal -- they found ways to help.

"A bunch of my swimming friends say their teachers would never do that for them," said Bootsma, who also helped her cause by being an excellent student. "I owe them a lot for taking the time to help me after school and get my work set up. They've definitely played a part in this, because my parents never would have let me swim if my grades weren't good."

Her friends have not always been so understanding. Bootsma's social circle used to revolve around school, but that changed as she got more serious about swimming.

Some friendships drifted apart because she had so little time for them. Now, most of Bootsma's friends are people who understand and share her lifestyle: fellow members of the Aquajets swim team, or elite swimmers she has come to know at meets and training camps. When she has time to get together, she likes to shop, go out to eat or go to the movies. Mostly, she likes to relax and chat.

Her few close friends outside of swimming love to hear about her travels and competitions. She loves to catch up on school gossip and get a vicarious taste of what she is missing.

"We joke that she gets to have a normal high school life by talking about mine," said Katie Koehler, Bootsma's friend and Eden Prairie classmate. "I don't always ask her about swimming, because she loves to hear about what I'm doing. But I'm sure it's hard for her to miss some of these things. I know it will pay off for her, but I can't imagine what that's like."

Don't go anywhere

Bootsma also cannot be as spontaneous and carefree as most teens. Eating fast food or pizza is a major indulgence, and she must constantly keep the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency updated on her whereabouts.

Elite athletes are subject to random drug testing and must provide USADA with a schedule every three months, noting where they will be during a one-hour time frame every day. If Bootsma is hanging out with friends, she must watch the clock to make sure she's home from 10-11 p.m.; if she isn't, she must contact USADA with her location.

Her parents had to get used to strangers knocking on the door late at night, asking their daughter to provide a urine sample. Other adjustments -- such as adapting to her diet of lean meats and vegetables -- came easier. Rachel's father, Rob, does most of the cooking, and he and Jan decided such healthy eating would benefit them, too.

While the main rule is no white food -- potatoes, bread, pasta, rice -- the family does splurge occasionally.

"And we still have brown food every night," Jan said, laughing. "Chocolate."

As much as Rachel misses potatoes, she and her parents made sure she would not be deprived of something more nourishing: the family time they all crave. Some young athletes move to training centers far away from their homes to chase the Olympic dream. Jan Bootsma emphatically said that was never an option for her daughters, because the Aquajets offer top-notch coaching and facilities, and especially because Rachel cherishes their nightly dinners together and their evenings spent relaxing at home.

The last family vacation Rachel can remember came when she was in fifth grade, when they went to Colorado for spring break. Since then, Rob and Jan have spent most of their vacation time traveling to swim meets. Some locations, such as Seattle, have been interesting to visit; some, such as Topeka, Kan., not so much.

Rachel said she appreciates the sacrifices her parents have made for her swimming career, and she wishes they could have a vacation that didn't entail sitting at a humid pool for five hours. Her parents, mindful of the big picture, refuse to complain.

"It would be nice to take the family and go to Yellowstone for a week," said Rob Bootsma, a retired consultant. "There just isn't time. It's not a sacrifice. It's just different."

Early adulthood

In many ways, the Bootsmas said, Rachel has grown up more quickly than an average high school student. When she is at elite training camps and competitions, most of the swimmers are in their 20s. Spending so much time in that atmosphere -- around dedicated, disciplined, high achievers who are older than she is -- has lent her a maturity uncommon in people her age.

That has made Bootsma feel rather distant from some aspects of teenage life. Most of the boys at school seem immature by comparison, and the daily dramas in the hallways seem insignificant. At times, she said, it can be jarring to navigate those divergent worlds.

When she thinks of the adventures she's had in places such as Barcelona and Berlin and Stockholm, of the friends she has made and the medals she has won, Bootsma doesn't feel she's missing out on anything. She occasionally questions whether that will change at some point. But not when she's in the water, doing what she believes she was born to do.

"Sometimes I wish I had a normal high school life, and I could go to football games and things like that and enjoy them," she said. "It would be nice to go to one dance.

"But I wouldn't trade what I have now for that. Swimming is my life."

  • related content

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    Thursday July 26, 2012

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  • Chart: The Rachel Bootsma file

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  • Rachel Bootsma has made many sacrifices while chasing a berth on this summer’s U.S. Olympic swimming team — and so have her parents. Rob (shown preparing a chicken breast for the grill as Rachel packed herself a lunch) and Jan Bootsma have adapted to Rachel’s diet of lean meats and vegetables.

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