Clock is ticking for Eden Prairie's Olympic hopeful

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 23, 2012 - 1:13 PM

The Olympic swimming trials are approaching, and 18-year-old Rachel Bootsma has put in the work. Now she's looking for any edge to make her fractions of a second faster.

STAR TRIBUNE EXCLUSIVE Read the first three parts of Bootsma's story by Star Tribune reporter Rachel Blount and photographer Brian Peterson at startribune.com/olympics.

CHARLOTTE, N.C.

Jan Bootsma did not have to look at her daughter's face to know what was going through her head. All she needed to see was the scoreboard at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center, which showed a 2 next to Rachel Bootsma's name after the finals of the 50-meter backstroke at the Charlotte Ultra-Swim meet earlier this month.

Rachel had touched the wall only 1/100th of a second behind winner Jennifer Connolly. Her time of 28 seconds was just off her personal best and the seventh fastest in the world this year. But her mother, who has seen her swim hundreds of races over the past 10 years, knew none of that would matter.

"She's going to be disappointed,'' said Jan Bootsma, peering at the scoreboard from the top row of the bleachers. "She always is when she doesn't win."

Detesting every loss has become as integral to Rachel's competitive routine as her pre-meet manicures, her race-day M&Ms and her grandmother's earrings. On the outside, she is a popular and gregarious athlete who loves to socialize on the pool deck and crack jokes in the ready room. On the inside, she possesses the poise to be gracious in defeat, yet she will stew silently over a loss while analyzing it in excruciating detail.

Bootsma, 18, also knows that no elite athlete can look backward for very long. The night after falling short in the 50 backstroke, she had swept it out of her mind and tied for first place in her premier event -- the 100-meter backstroke -- with her good friend Elizabeth Pelton. Both of them defeated Natalie Coughlin, who has won the past two Olympic gold medals in that event.

That left Bootsma in good spirits after the meet. It gave her one last chance to see how she stacks up against other elite swimmers and assess her preparations for next month's Olympic trials, where the top two in each event earn Olympic berths.

Despite coming home to Eden Prairie with gold and silver medals, Bootsma still wished her times had been faster and her mistakes fewer. That is the gift and the burden of her fiercely competitive nature, which has helped make her one of the country's fastest backstrokers heading into the trials.

"After the 50 back in Charlotte, I was angry, disappointed, sad," she said. "You always want to win. And I made a bunch of mistakes that cost me the race. But I couldn't change it. And after winning the 100 back, I came out of the meet with more confidence.

"I'd been thinking about this meet for weeks. I love to race. But then again, I hate to race. I hate to lose. It's really stressful and really exciting at the same time."

Bootsma didn't think she took the loss as hard as she might have, an opinion not shared by friend and teammate Van Donkersgoed. Donkersgoed, who also competed in Charlotte as a member of the Aquajets swim team, could tell how much it annoyed Bootsma to lose by 1/100th of a second -- and how much that factors into her success.

"I've never seen anyone get angry like she does after a loss," Donkersgoed said. "That's what makes her a damn good swimmer. She is so driven that nothing can stop her."

Relaxed but focused

Last year, coach Kate Lundsten mapped out a 2012 schedule designed to prepare Bootsma to peak at the Olympic trials, which run from June 25-July 2 in Omaha. It included three Grand Prix meets, which feature Olympic and national team members, and her final appearance in the junior national swimming championships. Each meet allows them to gauge how she is progressing and what she needs to improve.

In Charlotte, Bootsma hoped to break the U.S. record in the 50-meter backstroke and fine-tune her closing kick in the 100 back. That had been her focus in the six weeks of practice since the junior nationals, where she won seven gold medals. Some swimmers, Bootsma said, don't enjoy competing; some become so nervous they get sick. She used to suffer from anxiety, but she now gets so excited for meets that she sets up her phone to count down the days.

The week she traveled to Charlotte, Bootsma began loading new music onto her iPod -- adding to a catalog of about a thousand songs -- and got a manicure and pedicure, which she does before every meet. With nine events on her agenda, it promised to be a busy weekend; with so many friends among the hundreds of competitors, it promised to be a fun one.

The social scene at Grand Prix meets holds as much allure for Bootsma as the racing. In the crowded warmup area and on the pool deck in Charlotte, she laughed, chatted and constantly greeted people. Bootsma joked that some of the more intense athletes probably wish she would pipe down, but her coach said that staying happy and loose gives Bootma an edge.

"That is exactly how I want her to be," Lundsten said. "Girls her age who are gifted swimmers tend to be very much like that. They want to chat in the ready room and take it down a notch. But when they get in the water, they put on their serious face. Rachel does that very well, which I think really helps her."

So do her rituals. Bootsma does not consider herself superstitious, but she finds comfort in the routine that has evolved over years of elite-level swimming.

She likes to arrive early at the pool for the morning preliminaries so she can carve out her own space in the warmup area. At least one parent travels with her, but they must leave their hotel room in the afternoon so she can nap undisturbed. She eats chocolate -- usually M&Ms -- when she awakens.

"People always say, 'Isn't that bad for you?'" Bootsma said. "I tell them, 'Well, it hasn't affected me so far.'"

At the Charlotte meet, while Bootsma and Lundsten waited for her races, they sat in the stands and watched swimmers such as Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte compete. Bootsma already knew exactly how she wanted her swims to unfold.

Though most of her events flash by in one minute or less, there is strategy involved. Bootsma likes to swim fast yet controlled in the early stages, because she is confident she can finish strongly. In the weeks before the meet, she and Lundsten studied video of her races to identify adjustments that could make her faster, then integrated them during her 18 hours a week in the pool. She knows her rivals' tendencies well, and she will visualize her race plan over and over.

The idea is to allow instinct to take over the moment she hits the water, after a final ritual with Lundsten.

"I know how to swim my races," Bootsma said. "But before every race, I'll talk to Kate and ask, 'How do I swim this?' And she'll tell me, 'You know what to do. Go out there and do it.' And then I'm ready to go."

Never satisfied

Earlier this year, Bootsma swam the 50 back in 27.84 seconds -- the fastest time in the world this year until it was recently surpassed by a Russian swimmer. That convinced her she could break the American record of 27.80, and she felt primed to do so after recording a time of 28.16 in the Charlotte preliminaries.

After Connolly defeated her by the slimmest of margins, Bootsma realized she had put too much importance on the record. As much as the loss irritated her, she knew she could not dwell on it; she usually doesn't sleep well the night before the 100 backstroke, and she didn't need the additional aggravation. The next day, she and Lundsten decided to skip the other three events she had entered to concentrate solely on the 100 back.

Bootsma again swam the fastest qualifying time, clocking a 1:00.43 to defeat Coughlin in the preliminaries. She never had beaten the 11-time Olympic medalist in a final. As she took her place in lane 4 that Saturday night, Bootsma went through her final pre-race routine: tugging down her cap, pulling on her goggles and touching the earrings she wears in every race, the ones that belonged to her late grandmother.

"I'm thinking, 'You can do it, you can do it,'" Bootsma said. "Once they say, 'Take your mark,' I'm thinking, 'When are they going to say go?' And that's pretty much it. I know I'm thinking during the race, but afterward, I honestly can't tell you what I thought about."

Bootsma doesn't like to glance at the clock during a race, and after the turn, she focuses so intently on herself that she isn't fully aware of her competitors. When she and Pelton hit the wall together in 1:00.25, Jan Bootsma jumped up and threw her arms into the air, and Lundsten rejoiced at the water's edge. Bootsma and Pelton hugged in the water, two jubilant friends who will swim together at California-Berkeley next fall.

"We've become really close," Pelton said. "To be able to be in the final with her was so fun. And to tie with one of your best friends? It was great."

The moment a race is over, Bootsma said, the pain sets in. A bad race can make her feel like throwing up. After a good one, she still is panting and aching, but somehow, it doesn't feel quite as awful.

Especially after sharing a gold medal with a pal, and enjoying a moment afterward with a gracious and friendly Coughlin. It took hours for Bootsma to wind down that night, after her usual post-race debriefing with Lundsten, drug testing, media interviews and a late dinner. By Monday, she was ready to start all over again, going over her performances with her coach and looking for the next round of corrections that might shave a tick or two off her time before the Olympic trials.

"It's all mental preparation now," she said. "All the physical training has been done. We'll be fine-tuning everything, thinking about all the little details. I'm nervous, but I'm excited."

With 33 days to go, there is no time to waste. Though Lundsten said Bootsma is right where she needs to be, neither one will be satisfied, knowing she can keep getting faster.

"I'm always happy with aspects of all her races," Lundsten said. "But was I happy with everything in Charlotte? No. She wouldn't want me to be. There is always something that can be improved, so we'll keep working."

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