READY FOR THE TRIALS

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 24, 2012 - 12:18 AM

The next time 18-year-old Rachel Bootsma of Eden Prairie competes in the 100-meter backstroke, it will be to represent the USA in London.

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Rachel Bootsma

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By this point, Jan and Rob Bootsma expected their Eden Prairie home to be awash in anxiety.

Their daughter Rachel had spent four years training toward the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, which begin Monday in Omaha, and she had established a distinct pattern before big meets. Rachel’s growing nervousness and excitement usually made her moody, even sullen, as she geared up for competition.

But on the verge of the most important meet of her career, something unusual happened.

“I was anticipating a house full of stress, where you look at her sideways and she’d get uptight,’’ Jan Bootsma said last week. “Instead, she’s been very positive and very calm. I’m not seeing the frazzled emotions I thought I might see.’’

The edginess still is there, Rachel said, as it always is. On Tuesday, she will swim in the preliminaries of the 100-meter backstroke, the race she has dreamed of, worked toward and sacrificed for since 2008.

Back then, she was a terrified, starstruck 14-year-old competing in her first Olympic trials. Just being there felt like the achievement of a lifetime. But Bootsma left that meet determined to reach higher, putting her on course to make the national team, race alongside Olympians and medal at major international meets.

To make the team for this summer’s London Olympics, she must finish first or second in one of the deepest fields of any race at the trials.

Bootsma never has wanted anything more. Yet at age 18, she has accumulated enough experience and wisdom to know that these trials, too, will propel her towards bigger things — if not to the 2012 Olympics, then to her freshman season at the University of California, Berkeley this fall and the road to the 2016 Summer Games. That has given her some measure of serenity, much to the surprise of her parents.

“I know I’ve trained harder than I’ve ever done before,’’ Bootsma said. “I’ve sacrificed so much. All that’s left is just to do the best I can. It would be hard not to make it, but it won’t be my last Olympic trials, and it won’t be the end of my swim career. I think about the trials all day, every day. I’m ready and I’m excited, but every day it gets closer, I get more and more nervous. The 100 back is going to be crazy. I’m prepared for whatever happens.’’

Bootsma will swim in five other events, but her sole chance to make the Olympic team will come in the 100 back. Her competition includes Natalie Coughlin, the 2004 and 2008 Olympic gold medalist; Missy Franklin, the 2011 U.S. champion; Elizabeth Pelton, who twice has swum for the U.S. in the world championships; and Jennifer Connolly, silver medalist at the 2011 World University Games.

Coach Kate Lundsten predicted it will take a time of about 58 seconds to earn a spot on the Olympic roster. The American record is 58.94 seconds, held by Coughlin. Bootsma’s top time is 59.65, but this year, Franklin is the only American that has swum faster.

Bootsma has the 10th-fastest time in the world this year (1:00.02), while Franklin’s 59.89 is the eighth-fastest. Lundsten is among many who believe Bootsma’s best days remain ahead of her. Cal is known for producing Olympic swimmers, including backstrokers such as Coughlin.

As much as she wants Bootsma to become an Olympian this week, Lundsten said the promise of the coming years would ease any disappointment if it does not happen.

“To me, if she doesn’t make the team, that doesn’t mean she’s failed,’’ Lundsten said. “For her to be in this position, that shows me how good she has gotten in four years and how much better she’s going to get. I don’t think she’s come close to what she can do.’’

After tying for first place in the 100 backstroke at her last meet, the Charlotte UltraSwim Grand Prix — and beating Coughlin in the finals — Bootsma kept to her strict schedule. She continued logging about 18 hours a week in the pool, along with dryland workouts. She began tapering her training about two weeks ago, following her usual routine. But she took no breaks during the week of her graduation from Eden Prairie High School earlier this month, and she told her parents she did not want a party.

Her mother conceded, reserving the right to hold one later — and to turn it into a victory bash should Rachel make the Olympic team.

Bootsma has been visualizing her race in detail, a task made easier by the familiar venue. The trials are at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center, the same place they were in 2008, and she said her vivid memories of that meet make it hard to believe four years have passed. In the ready room before the 100 backstroke, she saw Coughlin’s high-tech swimsuit split open just minutes before the race, sending Coughlin into a tizzy.

Lundsten remembers how awestruck Bootsma was to be swimming in the same pool as Michael Phelps. It seems a bit surreal, Bootsma said, that she is now friends with the swimmers whose posters hang on her bedroom wall — and that she now possesses the confidence, strength and racing savvy to be part of the Olympic conversation.

To calm herself as much as possible, Bootsma is trying to keep everything in her life low-key. She nixed the idea of a sendoff celebration with the swim team, but she did allow friends to host a small barbecue in her honor. As well-meaning people bombard her with questions, Bootsma has tried not to be overwhelmed by pressure or expectations.

“Everyone is excited, and I really appreciate their support,’’ she said. “I know they’re not trying to make me nervous, but it’s hard. And my mom, who is just as nervous as I am, is getting a million questions a day.’’

Jan Bootsma said Rachel has had some happy distractions lately, including instructions from Cal about how to prepare for her freshman year of college. Rachel also is practiced in shutting out the rest of the world while she readies her mind for the task ahead.

Her parents have lost track of how many supporters will be coming to Omaha. A horde of aunts, uncles, cousins and even some teachers from Eden Prairie are planning to make the trip. While Rachel takes comfort in the fact that she has worked as hard as possible to prepare, that makes it no less nerve-wracking for her folks.

“It will be really hard just to watch,’’ Jan Bootsma said. “It’s always so stressful. If she has a good swim, it will be wonderful; if she doesn’t, it will be really frustrating. There will definitely be a sense of relief when it’s over.’’

There also will be a sense of melancholy. The Olympic trials will be Bootsma’s last major meet before she leaves Lundsten, the Aquajets swim team and her family to go to college. All of them have been pondering that lately, investing the trials with even more emotion.

When Bootsma steps onto the pool deck Tuesday, she will try to push that aside, trusting that all her effort over the past four years has prepared her for this moment — and for all that lies beyond.

“If I give it everything I’ve got, that’s all I can ask for,’’ she said. “As long as I know I put it all out there, I’ll be OK.’’

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