Ella Eastin looks on after competing at the TYR Pro Swim Series on May 18, 2019 in Bloomington, Indiana.
On Wednesday, Ella Eastin was named to her first world championship swim team. She will replace Olympian Kathleen Baker, who dropped the 200-meter individual medley from her schedule.
For Eastin, a 22-year-old recent Stanford grad, it’s a sudden but exciting change of schedule. She is currently representing the U.S. at the 30th Summer Universiade — or world university games — in Napoli, Italy. She will make a quick turnaround and fly to Gwangju, South Korea, later this month and is grateful for the chance.
“When an opportunity arises to represent the U.S., you have to take it,” Eastin wrote to TeamUSA.org from Italy. “There is no greater honor and I am excited to have a chance to race on the world stage!”
It’s an attitude that has helped Eastin overcome disappointing setbacks — or speed bumps, as she calls them — in her swimming career. In 2017, the eight-time individual NCAA champion touched the wall second in the 400 IM at the U.S. championships but was disqualified due to an illegal turn, causing her to miss making the world championship team that year. Last summer, she contracted mononucleosis before the national championships and again missed a world team.
But Eastin remained undaunted.
It’s all about motivation and opportunity, with one leading to the other.
“What keeps me motivated is that I’ve had performances that have shown that I am capable of really great things, but I haven’t necessarily had the opportunity to explicitly show myself,” she said by phone from California last month, shortly before she marched in her graduation ceremony. “I know it’s in there, and I’m kind of waiting for it to be unveiled. But in order to see my work come to fruition, I have to be patient and wait for that opportunity to come.”
That opportunity has — hopefully — finally come. And Eastin can show the world why she calls her setbacks “speed bumps” and not hurdles. Disappointment might have slowed her down, but it hasn’t stopped her.
* * *
Eastin came to Stanford University in the fall of 2015 — a bright swimming star from Irvine, California. It just so happened to be Maya (DiRado) Andrews’ final year of swimming. A 2015 Stanford grad and IM swimmer, Andrews was going to make one more run at Olympic qualification before moving on with life.
(Andrews would go to the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and win four Olympic medals, including gold in the 200 backstroke and silver in the 400 IM).
For a college grad, Andrews found Eastin’s bubbly energy “a lot to take in at first.”
“But we quickly settled into a rhythm,” Andrews added. “She’d keep me honest in practice with her insane speed, and I think I helped her grow in consistency and calmness.”
Andrews also noted that Eastin was going “to be scary good,” she told a Stanford reporter.
“Ella’s strength in the IMs is really that she has no weaknesses,” said Andrews. “Most swimmers have a clear weak leg and then compensate through their other three. But Ella really doesn’t have that. A few years ago, it might have been her backstroke, but she made some tremendous strides in that stroke over the last two seasons. Now she can really hold her own in all four strokes against anyone in the world.”
At the 2016 NCAA championships her freshman year, Eastin became the youngest swimmer to go under four minutes in the 400-yard IM. She also won the 200 IM title, and in the 200 butterfly she finished 0.08 seconds behind Kelsi Worrell, who would go on to compete at the Rio Games.
Despite these accolades, at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming, Eastin looked around the pool and was intimidated.
“I looked up to these people my whole life – Maya, Elizabeth Beisel, Caitlin Leverenz,” she told the Stanford athletics website. “These were my swimming idols. At that point, I was like, I can’t beat these people, but I’m going to be devastated if I don’t. How do you resolve that conflict inside yourself?”
In the 400 IM at trials, Eastin missed qualifying for the final by 0.04 seconds. Three days later, she made the 200 IM final and started fast — touching first at the 50, second at the 100. But then she faded to fifth, 1.38 seconds from representing Team USA in Rio.
Eastin was young, though, and would have more opportunities to qualify for international competition.
Fate had other plans.
The 2017 national championships served as the world championship qualifier, and Eastin started the meet well. She finished fourth in the 200 butterfly with a personal best time. Then in the 400 IM, she finished second, beating three-time Olympian and former 400 IM world champion Elizabeth Beisel.
Beisel swam over to Eastin and said, “Girl, you are the future, I’m handing you over that 400 IM baton, take it.” But then she looked at the scoreboard again and saw a DQ next to Eastin’s name.
On her final turn, Eastin had done a “Lochte turn” (named after Olympic and world IM champion Ryan Lochte) — remaining on her back underwater for too long. She was disqualified, and Beisel qualified for the world championship 400 IM instead.
Eastin was devastated. But she looked on the bright side. She had had, as Stanford coach Greg Meehan described it, the swim of her life. Bad turn aside, Eastin swam the 400 IM almost six seconds faster than she had at the 2016 Olympic trials.
“Nobody can take that swim away from her,” said Meehan after nationals had concluded. “It was still 4:36 any way you slice it.”
Eastin took this confidence all the way to 2018 NCAAs, where she won three individual titles, was named swimmer of the meet, and helped the Cardinal win their second consecutive NCAA championship.
With 2018 nationals in July serving as a Pan Pacific Championship and 2019 world championship qualifier, Eastin was on track to make her first major international teams.
“I was like, this is my year to come back and prove that I’m worthy of being on this team,” she said.
But then as 2018 nationals approached, Eastin felt exhausted and couldn’t recover. It felt like the flu. The team doctor confirmed that she had mono.
“That was one of the worst phone calls that I’ve ever received in my life,” Eastin said.
The only cure was rest, so she lay on her back for two weeks leading up to nationals. She dropped the grueling 400 IM from her schedule and decided to focus only on the 200 IM. It was her best chance of qualifying for Pan Pacs and worlds.
Remarkably, Eastin swam well at nationals, dropping her 200 IM time from 2:11 to 2:10. She finished third and was named to the Pan Pacs team. Two weeks later in Tokyo, she dropped her 200 IM time again to 2:09.90. It was “the farthest thing from what I expected,” she said.
But Olympians Kathleen Baker and Melanie Margalis both swam faster times at nationals. They were named to the 2019 worlds team for the 200 IM.
“Another speed bump in the road,” said Eastin.
Still, Eastin gained confidence from her steady progression. And in sports, confidence is huge.
At 2019 NCAAs in March, Eastin became the first woman to win four straight 400 IM titles and helped lead the Cardinal to their third straight NCAA championship — a remarkable feat given that Olympic gold medalists Katie Ledecky and Simone Manual had both turned pro and were no longer swimming for Stanford.
Then Eastin dominated the 400 IMs at two TYR Pro Swim Series meets this spring — winning one by almost two seconds, the other by almost three. Perhaps more telling, she beat the two swimmers who will compete in the 400 IM at worlds by over six seconds.
On June 16, Eastin received her degree in human biology. Now she is in Italy for the world university games, and will next head to South Korea for worlds. At the end of the month, she will compete at the 2019 national championships in her home pool at Stanford, though this year nationals does not serve as a qualifier. After a short break, she will dive back into training, with her eye on the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
Hopefully, the speed bumps are in her rearview mirror.
“I think Ella's simply made the decision that she has more in her than she's been able to show to date, and that she'll keep on working quietly until it's time to put that perfect race together,” said Andrews. “She's avoided becoming a victim and instead has viewed these ‘speed bumps’ as just another part of the process.”
She has also maintained her sense of humor, even laughing “about the ridiculousness of the ‘speed bumps,’” added Andrews.
Eastin has also appreciated the journey, not just the trophies, and had fun with it — partaking in “the sport in its purest form,” commented Meehan.
“Some athletes have their hearts set on gold medals and nothing else, leading them to under-appreciate all the great things about the journey,” said Andrews. “Ella has experience and embraced all the painful pieces of pursing the Olympics and now simply wants an opportunity, a fair shot, to see what she can do.
“And I hope so badly that she gets it!”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.