OLYMPICS | Elis compete at U.S. swimming trials

Athena Liao ’12, who was named first team All Ivy in her senior season, retired from competitive swimming after touching the wall in the 200m breaststroke at Olympics trials in Omaha last week.
Athena Liao ’12, who was named first team All Ivy in her senior season, retired from competitive swimming after touching the wall in the 200m breaststroke at Olympics trials in Omaha last week. Photo by Jacqueline Sahlberg.

Thousands of swimmers dove into the pool at the Olympic Trials last week and competed to represent the United States at the 2012 London Games. At the trials in Omaha, Nebraska, eight Bulldogs gained experience in managing high-pressure competitions, and graduated seniors cleared the lap lanes for incoming freshman, a new coach and high school recruits.

Four rising freshmen, two current students and two recent graduates from the women’s and men’s programs qualified by meeting the time standards for the trials and traveled to Omaha for a week of competition that began June 25. While competing against a field of more than 1,800 that included Olympians Ryan Lochte, Michael Phelps and Janet Evans, none of the Bulldogs advanced out of the preliminary round of their events.

“It’s different for people who are fast enough to go to semifinals and finals. Obviously they have a very clear goal in mind,” said Athena Liao ’12, who capped off her final season at Yale with a first team Ivy League selection and retired from competitive swimming after touching the wall in the 200m breaststroke in Omaha. “I was there for the experience of swimming at the trials and to have some fun.”

The trials were Jim Henry’s first meet as the Robert J.H. Kiphuth Head Coach of women’s swimming and diving. Henry, who spent six seasons at the University of Texas prior to being hired at Yale in June, said the races he saw in Omaha told two stories for the Yale women’s swim program.

The event demonstrated the improvement Liao and 200m butterfly competitor Hayes Hyde ’12 achieved during their time at Yale, Henry said. The races also showed a positive future for the program, he added, with Molly Albrecht ’13 racing the 200m backstroke, Emma Smith ’16 competing in the 400m IM, Ali Stephens-Pickeral ’16 swimming the 100m breaststroke, and Eva Fabian ’16 improving her time in the 400m freestyle before returning to the pool for the 800m freestyle.

“It was awesome to see the responses of the seniors when they had their final swim, and [to] see how gratifying it was that they did their best and made it to the [Olympic Trials] level,” Henry explained. “It was also incredible to see three incoming freshman so eager and fearless.”

Henry added that the experience of swimming at a high-pressure meet – with lights, cameras and more than 10,000 cheering fans – is invaluable for the Eli competitors. Knowing how to manage the nerves and attention that come with big meets will help the Bulldogs to have better performances at Ivy League Championships and NCAA Championships in the future, he explained.

On the men’s side, incoming freshman Kevin Stang ’16 swam the 200m backstroke and Rob Harder ’15 raced the 1500m freestyle. Head men’s coach Tim Wise said Stang’s 32nd place finish in the preliminary round indicates that he is one of the top swimmers in the nation for his age group.

“It’s always exciting to have people qualify,” Wise said. “But we have [Olympic] gold medals down in the trophy room. There are years where Yale had multiple guys compete at the Olympic Games. I think we can do better than what we are doing right now. That is the goal.”

The timing of the trials, which overlapped with the first day the NCAA allows college coaches to initiate contact with rising high school seniors on July 1, enabled Henry and Wise to scout for future Bulldogs. Wise said that the improvement his team realized over the past year — going from a 2-8 record in the 2010-2011 season to a 6-2 record in the 2011-2012 season – attracted the attention of standout high school swimmers competing at the trials.

Twenty-four Bulldog swimmers have combined to win 25 Olympic medals. Two Olympians – Mike Austin ’64 and Steve Clark ’65 – donated their gold medals from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics to Yale.

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