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For Young Swimmer Walsh, Ecstasy Followed By Brief Agony At Trials

By Philip Hersh | June 27, 2016, 9:43 p.m. (ET)

Gretchen (left) and Alex pose in front of the CenturyLink Center at 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming in Omaha, Neb.

OMAHA, Neb. – The draw for Monday morning’s first round of the 100-meter backstroke at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming put Alex Walsh two lanes from Missy Franklin in the 15th of 16 heats.

Walsh could not have been happier.

“She’s one of my biggest idols because she’s always so positive,” Walsh said of Franklin, reigning Olympic champion in the event. “I was ecstatic.”

It got even better when Franklin asked the 14-year-old Walsh for help with her swim cap before heading to the pool deck for the race.

“That was pretty great,” Walsh said. 

Franklin, 21, had no idea whom she had asked – or that she had given one of the many young swimmers who look up to her an indelible memory.

“I just needed help getting my cap on,” Franklin said. “How did she end up?”

Sixth, Franklin was told after winning the heat with a time, 1 minute, 00.35 seconds, that made her the No. 5 qualifier for Monday night’s semifinals.

“That’s awesome,” Franklin said, with her usual ebullience. 

It was pretty awesome for Walsh, of Nashville, one of the youngest of the 1,720 competitors at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. The youngest? Her sister, Gretchen, 13, who will swim the 50 freestyle here beginning Saturday.

“I think it’s great that I’m young, but I don’t give myself extra credit,” said Alex Walsh, a preternaturally poised rising high school freshman. “I’ve worked hard and put in a lot of dedication.”

So she allowed herself a bit of disappointment in a time, 1:01.20, that was slightly slower than her entry time, no matter that it gave her 14th overall and a place in Monday night’s semifinals. Another 14-year-old, Regan Smith, also made the semis as 13th fastest by finishing .03 ahead of Walsh in the same heat.

Walsh reversed the order in the Monday night semifinals, finishing 11th to Smith’s 12th as each was in a different race and swam faster than she had in the morning: 1:00.95 for Walsh, 1:00.96 for Smith. The swimmers with the eight fastest times moved on to Tuesday’s final, a list topped by Olivia Smoliga’s 59.16 and barely including Franklin, seventh in 1:00.45.

Alex Walsh had talked matter-of-factly about how it felt when she actually took her mark near Franklin and another 2012 Olympic gold medalist, Rachel Bootsma. As her mother, Glynis, pointed out, the Nashville Aquatic Club coaches had prepared their team for being around such top swimmers by taking them to elite meets in Austin, Texas, and Atlanta this spring.

“That really helped Alex this morning,” Glynis Walsh said. 

Alex Walsh competes in the 100-meter backstroke at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming at CenturyLink Center on June 27, 2016 in Omaha, Neb.

But not long after the heat, the whole thing seemed to hit her older daughter. While talking in the media mixed zone, Alex began to feel nauseous, politely excused herself and walked away to find a private place to relieve the distress. Her coaches chose to withdraw her from a 100 breaststroke heat 50 minutes later.

“A case of butterflies, for sure,” said Glynis, an emergency medical physician who had captained the Boston College women’s swim team in 1993. “As soon as she got it out of her system, she was fine.”

The Walshes are among the 16 14-year-olds and four 13s, all but two of them girls, who have qualified for these trials. Four of the 16 semifinalists in the women’s 100 backstroke are barely 16 or younger.

Such precocity is not unusual in swimming. Four years ago, 15-year-old swimmer Katie Ledecky not only became the youngest member of the entire U.S. Olympic team but won the gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle.

How she wound up as the mother to two such young talents excites and bemuses Glynis Walsh and her husband, Robert, a real estate investor and developer.

“We can’t believe it,” she said. “We don’t know how or why it has happened.”

The back story actually is fairly typical. The Walshes put both girls in the pool when they were around 4, hoping the exercise would help tire them out. About two years later, when their first swimming instructor told them to get in the water and try freestyle, an amazed Glynis watched them stroke and breathe at regular intervals and said to herself, “These kids can really swim.”

“I’m the running joke in our family, because the kids were faster than I ever was by the time they were 12,” Glynis said.

That Alex qualified for the Olympic Trials was not surprising after she set three national age-group records at age 12, breaking two marks that had been Franklin’s. She had trials qualifying times in four events by last summer, when she won the junior national title in the 100 backstroke. 

For Gretchen, a rising eighth grader, got within .4 seconds of the qualifying time (26.19) for the 50-meter freestyle in mid-March. But her qualifying came down to the last shot, a meet 10 days ago at her home pool in Nashville.

“We didn’t want to put any pressure on her, so we joked, ‘You’ll have a lot more fun on the pool deck than sitting in the stands with us for a whole week,’” Glynis said.

What better way to inspire a teenager than with the promise of ditching the mom and dad for a week? It clearly worked, as Gretchen tore through the 50 meters in 25.96 seconds, more than half a second faster than her previous personal best. It made her 87th of 186 qualifiers for the 50.

“When she touched the wall, she burst into tears,” Glynis said.

As fast as they are, both have reached this point at a reasoned pace.

Alex began doing more than one practice a day on some school days only this year. Gretchen went to the beach with friends this spring when the club team went on a training trip to Texas because she was too young, then just two months past her 13th birthday.

“We’re trying to keep it all in balance so they don’t get tired and burned out,” Glynis said.

Alex clearly got that message.

“I’m grateful to be here and be young and still have more years ahead of me,” she said.

Philip Hersh, who has covered 17 Olympic Games and was the Chicago Tribune’s Olympic specialist for 30 years, is a contributor to TeamUSA.org.

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