By Jeff Hawkins | May 18, 2015, 11:47 a.m. (ET)
Connor Jaeger swims the men's 500-yard freestyle final during the USA Swimming 2014 AT&T Winter National Championships at the Greensboro Aquatic Center on Dec. 4, 2014 in Greensboro, N.C.


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- On Connor Jaeger’s first turn, the 2012 Olympian was .7 seconds behind the early leader. By the third turn, he remained in second place, .74 behind.

But his confidence was growing.

On his fourth of 15 laps in the 1,500-meter freestyle race Sunday at the Arena Pro Swim Series on at Charlotte, North Carolina, Jaeger was .56 seconds ahead. Two laps later, he paced his former University of Michigan teammate Ryan Feeley, who was swimming in third, by 6.25 seconds. Jaeger’s confidence was racing.

Two laps later, he led Feeley by 8.66 seconds, as eventual second-place finisher Ahmed Akram of Egypt started to fade behind the leader.

One of the rising talents in the U.S. national program, Jaeger on the final few laps almost lapped the end of the field during the final day of competition in Charlotte. Finishing at an in-season best 14:58.13, Jaeger’s victory capped a dominating performance at the event some swimmers declared “the beginning of the championship season.”

Jaeger, a distance specialist who failed to medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games, captured three event wins at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center, including the 400 and 800 freestyles.

As Team USA teammate Ryan Lochte put it: “His confidence is skyrocketing.”

As it should, considering what Jaeger has accomplished over the past 18 months.

Beginning with the 2013 AT&T Winter Nationals, when he claimed first-place finishes in the 500-yard freestyle and 1,650-yard freestyle, Jaeger carried the momentum over to the 2014 NCAA championships, where he captured the 1,650 national title. Jaeger then earned an invitation to the Pan Pacific Championships by winning the 1,500 free at the Phillips 66 National Championships.

At the Pan Pacs, he won gold in the 1,500 freestyle and bronze medals in the 400 and 800 freestyles. Returning to the AT&T Winter Nationals, Jaeger captured the 1,650-yard freestyle, establishing an American-record of 14:23.52. He also won the 500-yard free and took second in the 400-yard individual medley.

What does Lochte expect Jaeger to do for an encore as the pre-Olympic intensity certainly will increase over the next 12 months?

“I only see him getting faster,” said Lochte, himself owner of 11 Olympic medals, five of them gold.

A native of Fair Haven, New Jersey, Jaeger entered the Charlotte meet absent from competition for the past four months. One may think he came in ”refreshed.”

Well, not exactly.

Jaeger’s daily workout includes a 15-kilometer swim, plus two workouts a day, six days a week, according to his USA Swimming biography.

“There is something to be said about racing is the best practice,” he quipped.

Three individual wins over the accomplished Charlotte field certainly would give any swimmer a confidence boost. Scheduled to appear were 19 Olympic medalists with a combined 77 medals, including 40 gold medals.

Jaeger “going stroke-for-stroke” with Conor Dwyer in Saturday’s 400-meter freestyle proved to be one of the meet’s top moments. Jaeger won at 3:46.30, edging Dwyer’s 3:47.53.

After watching Jaeger last weekend, Lochte predicted: “Jaeger is definitely a guy I am looking for to medal (in the upcoming Olympics).”

Jaeger admitted 2012 was a  “wide-eyed” experience. Should he qualify again in 2016, Jaeger said he would be better prepared — mentally.

And to get there, he said: “It is time to put the blinders on. Nothing but focus.”

Jeff Hawkins is a reporter from the Charlotte area. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.