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The Worst Times, The Best of Times: How Annie Lazor Made The 2020 U.S. Olympic Team

By Peggy Shinn | July 19, 2021, 11:01 a.m. (ET)

Annie Lazor and Lilly King competing in the Women's 200m breaststroke final at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials in Omaha, Nebraska.  

 

In one of the most emotional races at 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Trials — Swimming, Annie Lazor won the 200-meter breaststroke, beating her friend and teammate Lilly King to qualify for her first Olympic team.

In the pool after the race, Lazor hugged King and told her, “We did it.” 

Then, as King rallied the crowd with an arm wave, Lazor climbed onto the lane line, slapped the water, and screamed.

It was a touching display of unbridled emotion for the 26-year-old breaststroker who had gone from the worst day of her life to the best in less than eight weeks.

Here’s how Annie Lazor made the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team.

Initial Retirement

Lazor actually retired from swimming five years ago. At 2016 Olympic trials, the Auburn University graduate finished seventh in the 200 breaststroke and did not advance to the finals of the 100 breaststroke.

It was a big blow to the swimmer who had been a promising teen, finishing 15th in the 200 breaststroke at 2012 Olympic trials and being heralded as “a big-time pickup for Auburn, capable of immediately scoring at SECs, as well as qualifying for NCAAs” after she transferred from Ohio State at the end of her freshman year.

Lazor quit swimming and took a job at the University of California-Berkeley in the athletic department as an operations intern for men’s swimming and beach volleyball.

“I was really frustrated and thought I needed that time [away from the sport],” she said. “I didn’t set a time for me to come back and didn’t really think I was going to come back.”

Among Lazor’s job responsibilities at Cal, she filmed the men’s swim team practices. Several Cal swimmers made the 2020 U.S. Olympic swimming team, including backstroker Ryan Murphy.

“She worked at Cal in 2016 and 2017, and she made a big impact on our program,” said Murphy. “She came down every Wednesday, she would have the iPad, film our practice. She’s a really hard worker.”

Perhaps because she watched the men practice, Lazor soon realized that she missed the sport.

“I didn’t want to look five or ten years down the road and regret not coming back in a time that I could,” she said. “I can work at a desk all my life, but I can’t swim all my life.”

Move to Indiana

Once Lazor made the decision to swim again, she moved quickly, first trying Indiana University’s program — home to 2016 Olympic medal-winning breaststrokers Lilly King and Cody Miller. It proved to be a great fit. But first, coach Ray Looze wanted to get King’s approval.

“For her to accept a competitor into her training environment speaks the world about the kind of competitor that [Lilly] is,” said Lazor.

Lazor moved to Bloomington, Indiana, but at the time the Olympic Games were not a goal. Self-doubt ran high, and she simply wanted to see how good she could get. 

In 2019, she swam at the Pan American Games, winning the 100 and 200 breaststroke races. A run at the Tokyo Olympic Games was suddenly not such a far-fetched idea. Lazor also had an ace in her hand that few of her competitors have: she knows what life is like without swimming.

“You don’t have this target on your back that everyone else who has been swimming for years has,” Looze told her.

As 2020 dawned, Lazor was flying. At the TYR Pro Swim Series meet that March, she clocked the fastest 200-meter breaststroke time in the world for 2020.

Then the 2020 Olympic Games Tokyo were postponed. Lazor initially felt robbed but then realized she could swim even faster in 2021.

At the TYR Pro Swim Series meet in early April 2021, Lazor finished third in the 100 breaststroke and second in the 200 — just behind King — and was listed as a favorite to make the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team.

Father’s Passing

Then on Sunday, April 25, 2021, Lazor’s father, David, died suddenly at age 61. He was one of his daughter’s biggest fans, supporting her Olympic dream. 

“He lavished love on his daughter Annie and encouraged her big dreams,” read David’s obituary. “They traveled together to many swim meets where he was her ardent cheerleader — win or lose, he always let her know that she is so much more than her athletic accomplishments.”

Pictures of her father dot Lazor’s Instagram, including one with Lazor as a young girl standing with her dad who’s wearing a Winnie the Pooh tie.

Lazor immediately traveled home to Michigan, as did her boyfriend, Vini Lanza, a Brazilian who graduated from Indiana University and still trains there. He had just made Brazil’s Olympic swim team 24 hours earlier. 

King drove almost six hours to Michigan to be with the Lazor and her family and told Lazor’s mom that she would do everything in her power to get her teammate onto the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team.

For the first few weeks, Lazor felt like she was “either choosing grief that day or swimming, there was no in between.” King was instrumental in keeping Lazor afloat, literally and figuratively.

“[Lilly] has been there for me in ways that I can't even begin to describe, words fall short to be quite honest with you,” said Lazor. “She is my family outside my family.”

2021 U.S Olympic Team Trials

The 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Omaha in mid-June was Lazor’s first meet since her father’s death. She was nervous to see people again. But the swim community welcomed her with open arms.

“Ryan [Murphy] came up to me and gave me a big smile and a big hug,” said Lazor. “He didn't have to say anything for me to know that he was thinking of me.”

On the third night of trials, Lazor finished third in the 100 breaststroke — just missing qualifying in that event. King wanted to celebrate making her second Olympic team but was also heartbroken that Lazor hadn’t made it. Yet.

But Lazor was far from heartbroken. She had had a great race — ”I just got beaten by the two fastest times in the world, that's all that happened,” she said. 

“I didn't lose any confidence in what I was going to do in the 200, and neither did [Lilly],” said Lazor. “And to have one of the most confident swimmers in the world say that to you is pretty incredible.”

Making the U.S. Olympic Team

As the women lined up behind the blocks for the 200-meter breaststroke finals, King — who had clocked the fastest time in the semifinals — looked at Lazor in the adjacent lane.

“She told me she loved me and let’s go do this, and that was all I needed to hear,” said Lazor, who then stepped onto the blocks.

King led the 200 out hard. But Lazor wasn’t worried. King always goes out hard. Lazor turned on the afterburners at the 100 and knew she just had to put her head down and she would be an Olympian. She touched the wall in first in 2:21.07 — the third fastest time in the world so far this year (a time that would have won the Olympic silver medal in Rio). 

When she climbed onto the lane line and splashed the water in celebration, Lazor was not just celebrating her own victory.

“I wanted to make sure that everyone who was a part of it was getting the same amount of celebration that I had, because it took so many people for me to even be sitting her right now,” she said during the post-race press conference. “I just wanted to make sure they got all the same credit that I was feeling.”

After the race, King seemed happier for her teammate than for her own second place finish (0.68 seconds behind Lazor).

“It was just a really special moment for the two of us,” said King. “I mean we’ve literally been through hell and back together, even for the last three, four years. 

“Just seeing someone make their first Olympic team, who’s been there every single day with you, training and fighting, and you know everything we’ve done together and seeing that pay off for her is so, so awesome.”

At the pre-Games training camp in Hawaii, Lazor has embraced her role as an Olympian — an older rookie on the team.

“Every day that she comes in here, she is focused, she is working hard, but she's also just really enjoying this experience,” said Tokyo women’s head coach Greg Meehan. “She has elevated Team USA, whether it's in the dining hall or over at a pool, everything about her is amazing. So we're very blessed that she is here.”

SWIMMING U.S. OLYMPIC TEAM TRIALS 2021 HIGHLIGHTS

Annie Lazor Wins Women's 200-meter Breaststroke | Swimming U.S. Olympic Team Trials 2021
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06/19/2021

Peggy Shinn


An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.

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