OMAHA- When Rebecca Soni stood in front of the starting block before the start of the 100 breaststroke final, she looked to her right and saw something eerily familiar.
To her right was Breeja Larson, a 20-year old with a smile on her face and the recipient of modest applause when the announcer called her name to the audience.
Then there was Soni, wearing her pink suit and receiving nearly a standing ovation when the announcer recited her long list of laurels before the race.
For the first time she could remember, Soni did not feel like herself before a race. She was tight, nervous. To make things more interesting, to her right was almost a carbon copy of herself four years ago when she shocked the swimming world and won the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials.
“It’s a whole lot easier looking back four years ago and nobody knew my name,” Soni said. “If you didn’t make it, no big deal. But now it’s if I didn’t make it, everybody would say, ‘Why didn’t you make it?’ ”
Despite not picking up a win in the 100 breaststroke finals, she locked up a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team in London with a second-place showing. Hardy, meanwhile, who was considered a top contender to make the team, but she missed out after placing third (1:06.53).
The days of sneaking up on people are long gone for Soni, a former University of Southern California standout. Soni earned a silver medal in the 100 breast in Beijing, finishing second to Australia’s Leisel Jones.
In the 200, Soni upset Jones for the gold. At the world championships in Rome in 2009, she set the world record in the event (a record that later was broken by her training teammate Jessica Hardy.)
All of those accomplishments made it harder for Soni to live out of the spotlight. Instead of sneaking up on opponents, this time around, in April, for example, Sports Illustrated published a lengthy feature on her. And the story featured this as part of the headline: “There's not another swimmer in the world like American breaststroker Rebecca Soni, who could win three golds in London.”
When the Trials were held in Omaha four years ago, Soni was coming off an illustrious college career and was just getting used to the long-course scene.
Being new to the game and inexperienced in the international scene didn’t have any negative effect on Soni.
In 2012, her newfound wealth of experience was a deterrent for her, if anything.
“It’s really different,” Soni said. ” It is a just a different kind of a pressure than when you are younger and fresher to the scene.”
Soni started off the race a little slow, but picked up speed in the final 50 meters. Eventually, the swimmer who took home silver and gold medals in the breaststroke events back in Beijing was going down to the wire with a Texas A&M swimmer fresh off a solid collegiate season.
In essence, it was like the 2008 Soni going neck and neck with the present-day Soni.
Just like in 2008, the youngster prevailed. Larson touched-out Soni by a mere .07. Larson won in 1 minute, 5.92 seconds, with Soni clocking in at 1:05.99.
But it was fast enough to send Soni to London.
“For me, I had some huge pressure to make the team,” Soni said. “So it feels great to have that lifted off of me and pull it off at the end. This time it was the mental side for me. I definitely don’t like to wait all day for that final. I’d rather just do it and get it over with. I think I was really nervous.
“Now that the jitters are gone, Soni hopes to learn from her “disappointing” second-place showing. Sure there are things she wants to improve on, and she knows she left a lot out there Wednesday.
But most importantly, Soni learned something even more valuable before she competes in the 200 breaststroke later in the week. In the 100, she learned how to handle the spotlight. Having a target on her back is still something the gold medalist is getting used to, and she hopes the 100 breaststroke final will do wonders.
“I was trying to force it and not letting it flow out,” Soni said. “I’m still happy that I was able to get a spot on the team and that is really all that matters. Hopefully later this week and in London I can work out the kinks and get my start to work out a little better.”
But before she races again in the 200 breaststroke, an event she broke the world record at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, she knows she has to swim more like the 20-year old that shocked the world Wednesday night and channel some of the fearlessness Soni possessed back in 2008.
“I didn’t feel like myself swimming,” Soni said. “I felt tight and even from the beginning I had a bad start. I’ve been working on it and it just didn’t come through. But I can fix it and be a lot faster in London. “