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Kevin Cordes Spent 4 Years Studying Sport Of Swimming, Moved Across World To Make First Olympic Team

By Peggy Shinn | June 27, 2016, 11:12 p.m. (ET)

Kevin Cordes competes in the men's 100-meter breaststroke at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming at CenturyLink Center on June 26, 2016 in Omaha, Neb.

OMAHA, Neb. — In 2012, Kevin Cordes just missed out going to the London Olympic Games. Four years later, the 22-year-old breaststroker will be able to call himself an Olympian.

“I can’t believe it,” Cordes said, still breathless after winning the men’s 100-meter breaststroke at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming. “It’s an amazing feeling, being able to say I’m an Olympian, going to Rio.”

In the final, he out-touched Cody Miller by 0.08 seconds, winning in 59.18. Miller came in second in 59.26 and will likely also be named to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team later this week.

Cordes dominated the 100 breaststroke from the start of the Olympic Trials, beating Miller in the preliminary heats, semifinals and final. More importantly, he dropped below the 59-second barrier for the first time ever. His time of 58.94 in the semis broke the American record and was the second-fastest time in the event so far this year.

To Brendan Hansen, who won the bronze medal in the 100 breaststroke at the London Games (one of Hansen’s six Olympic medals), it was a sign that Cordes can contend for a medal in Rio. Hansen retired after the 2012 Olympic Games and is in Omaha with swimmers from a club team that he started in Austin, Texas. He is also working as a TV commentator for USA Swimming at Olympic Trials.

“You have to go 58 to be a medal contender [in Rio],” said Hansen. “Had he gone 59.1 or 59.0 last night, I would say no.”

At the 2015 world championships, gold medalist Adam Peaty from Great Britain won in 58.52. Peaty also holds the world record (57.92).

Hansen also sees a different swimmer in Cordes than he witnessed during the 2012 Olympic Trials. Back then, Cordes was 18 and finished third (behind Hansen and Eric Shanteau) in the 100-meter breaststroke. He missed making the team competing at the 2012 London Games by about a half-second.

“I see a different kid,” Hansen said. “I see a kid who studied the textbook cover to cover and is ready to take the test. He’s just prepared. And a prepared athlete is going to be successful.”

Since 2012 trials, Cordes has had ups and downs in his career. Enrolled at the University of Arizona from 2011 until he graduated in 2015, he won seven individual NCAA titles in the 100 and 200 breaststroke. He also qualified for the 2013 world championships, where he infamously left the blocks too early in the 4x100 medley. The U.S. team was disqualified, depriving the team of both the gold medal and a world record.

Then at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships, Cordes was disqualified for removing his water-filled goggles in the 100 breaststroke final (because of an illegal hand gesture required to pull off the goggles).

Last year, Cordes put the bad luck behind him and moved to Singapore to train with Sergio Lopez, the Spanish breaststroker (bronze, 1988 Olympic Games) who became the head coach of Singapore Swimming in January 2015 (he has since accepted the job as head coach at Auburn University and will start after the Rio Games).

“Coach Sergio Lopez has been amazing,” said Cordes. “Going from college, where it was a lot of short-course focus, now toward long course has really helped me get a sense of my strengths about my stroke and applying it to long course.”

Lopez also helped him gain confidence. At the 2015 world championships, Cordes won medals in the 50 and 200 breaststroke, as well as the 4x100 medley and the mixed medley relay (the 50 breaststroke and mixed medley are not Olympic events). It was the most medals won by any male swimmer at the 2015 world championships.

At worlds, Lopez saw that Cordes was approaching the races with more of a long-term view.

“The beautiful thing about him is that in the past he would swim very fast in the first event, then maybe fade away a bit,” said Lopez. “[At 2015 world championships], he swam faster in every race.”

“The accomplishment of everything that he did [at worlds] was very impressive,” added Lopez. “He changed, a bit, his thought process. Instead of trying to control somebody else’s race, he’s learning to control his own race. And I think that was the first introduction.”

From his viewpoint as a freshly minted Olympic qualifier, Cordes could only say, “There’s been a lot of ups and downs throughout my last four years. I’m just so thankful.”

Cody Miller was also breathless after the 100 breaststroke — both from the effort and the realization that he will likely make his first Olympic team.

The 24-year-old with long-ish hair and a big smile commented that he’s been through a lot in the past year. His father passed away in December. But not one to dwell on bad news, he added that he also got engaged.

When asked what he will bring to the U.S. Olympic Team, should he be named to it later this week, Miller laughed, then offered, “A funky chest, good hair. How about a positive attitude, go with that.”

Then he grew more serious and spoke for just about every swimmer at Olympic Trials. Miller said that he grew up idolizing the swimmers who compete for the U.S. at the Olympic Games, and he first tasted trials as a high school swimmer in 2008. Four years later, he made the 200 IM final and swam two lanes away from Michael Phelps, but finished seventh — not fast enough to make it to London. This time, he will likely make it to Rio.

“Every kid dreams of this,” Miller said. “I’m not very big, and I’ve got a lot of disadvantages. The fact that I’m able to be here and do this, I’m just trying to soak it in.”

Also qualifying for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Monday night, Katie Ledecky won the 400-meter freestyle in 3:58.98 for the third-fastest 400 free time in history. She was close to breaking her own world record throughout most of the race. Leah Smith finished second in 4:00.65.

In the women’s 100-meter butterfly, 2015 Pan American Games champion Kelsi Worrell made her first Olympic team by beating out defending Olympic champion Dana Vollmer, who came in second. Worrell’s time of 56.48 seconds is the second-fastest time this year.

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008. 


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