In 2012, Rachel Bootsma arrived at the Olympic trials with the next four years all planned out. The swimmer from Eden Prairie would be heading to the University of California-Berkeley that fall, joining one of the best college programs in the country, with visions of NCAA titles and Pac-12 championships.
The closer she got to the trials, though, the less she thought about her long-term agenda. “It seemed like it was going to be life or death, whether I made [the Olympic team] or not,” Bootsma recalled. “It didn’t seem like my life would continue on.”
It did, of course, taking her to the London Games — where she won a relay gold medal at age 18 — and on to three NCAA titles in the 100-yard backstroke at Cal. This week, Bootsma returns to the trials at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center with a different perspective. As much as she hopes to capture a second Olympic berth and a trip to Rio, she’s also looking ahead to what comes next.
Monday, Bootsma will swim the preliminaries of her signature event, the 100-meter backstroke. She qualified for the trials with a time of 1 minute, 0.25 seconds, eighth-fastest in the field, and captured her third NCAA championship in the 100-yard back with a time of 50.28 — the sixth-fastest in history.
After that victory in March, Bootsma’s eagerness to talk about her post-swimming future caused one website to interpret her remarks as a retirement announcement. That isn’t true, she said, at least not yet. At the end of the summer, Bootsma will decide whether to carry on with a sport that became the cornerstone of her identity, or get on with the business of exploring life on dry land.
“I just want to swim these trials and see what happens,” said Bootsma, 22, who finished 42nd in the 100 butterfly Sunday and will also swim the 100 freestyle at the trials. “If I make the Olympic team, that’s amazing. And if I don’t make the Olympic team, I know my life will go on, and my life will still be great.
“I realized in college that swimming isn’t everything that defines me. I have a lot more to offer, and I have a lot of other passions and strengths. Realizing that I absolutely love swimming, but knowing it isn’t everything in the world — and really believing that — has been a huge relief and a weight off my shoulders.”
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Bootsma said she feels like a “completely different” person as compared with 2012, when she finished second to Missy Franklin in the 100 back at the Olympic trials. Making the Olympic team four years earlier than many predicted, Bootsma wrestled with her nerves at the London Games and finished 11th in the 100 back. She followed with a strong swim in the preliminaries of the women’s 400 medley relay and received a gold medal when her teammates won the final.
Cal coach Teri McKeever said Bootsma leaves the Bears as a “very, very close second” to Natalie Coughlin on the program’s glittering list of 100-meter backstrokers. That did not come easily, testing Bootsma in ways that have permanently shaped her.
After winning her first NCAA title as a freshman, she stumbled to an 11th-place finish as a sophomore. She rebounded with two more NCAA titles in the 100 back and helped Cal to the NCAA team crown in 2015. At this year’s NCAA championships, Bootsma won her title a day after falling ill and going to the emergency room.
A girl McKeever recalled as a “shy freshman” in 2012 ended her Cal career as a co-captain, a three-time Pac-12 champ in the 100 back, an academic All-America and the featured speaker at the school’s academic honors luncheon for athletes last spring. As a result, the coach said, Bootsma enters these Olympic trials as a more mature, assured and resilient swimmer.
“This stage of her life has taught her she has a lot more to offer the world than swimming a fast 100 backstroke,” McKeever said. “She knows that whatever happens [at the Olympic trials], it’s going to be OK. That’s what these past four years have taught her: that she can handle whatever happens.”
During her time at Cal, Bootsma learned how to be a healthier, more efficient swimmer. She remodeled her body in the Cal weight room, cooks her own nutritious meals and revamped her strokes with McKeever’s assistance.
She will need every edge she can get at the trials. The field in the 100 back is as daunting as ever, led by Coughlin, a 12-time Olympic medalist, and Franklin, an Olympic and world champion in the event.
“This time around, she is the chasee, not the chaser,” said Rowdy Gaines, analyst for NBC’s swimming telecasts. “That is certainly more pressure, but she is one that has always been able to handle that. She is incredibly consistent, and that’s what you need to be successful in an event that is definitely going to be tough.”
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In recent weeks, Bootsma has found herself reflecting on her experience in 2012 and her life in the sport. She still gets chills when thinking about the first time the U.S. team visited the pool in London — “it was like people were seeing their dreams come true,” she said — and has regained the pure joy she found in swimming as an 8-year-old just learning to race.
Regardless of what happens in Omaha, Bootsma plans to take a break from the sport at the end of the summer. She will finish her degree in nutrition and public health in December and is eager to spend her final semester at Cal solely as a student and not an athlete. Once she is finished competing, she wants to pursue a career in sports and would like to remain on the Berkeley campus.
At the last Olympic trials, Bootsma thought only about the results. Now that she has outraced that narrow perspective, she is comfortable with whatever comes next.
“Part of me is ready to be done with swimming,” she said. “But part of me still really loves it.
“I hope I’ll be calmer at the trials this time, able to enjoy everything about it and really remember what I did. I have to remember to take in the little moments. And if I do my best, I think I have a pretty good shot.”