COLUMBIA — To be one of only two U.S. athletes selected for each Olympic event takes a lot: mental fortitude, intense training and a significant amount of luck.
Two Olympic hopefuls competing at the Missouri Grand Prix this weekend have checked the first two points off their lists and are heading to the home stretch before the Olympic qualifying trials.
Adam Ritter, a 23-year-old former college standout at the University of Arizona, and Caitlin Leverenz, a 16-year-old coming off an impressive year of competition, are both fairly new members to the U.S. National Teams and are training to compete in Beijing this summer.
“Making the Olympics is my main goal,” Leverenz said.
She added that watching the Olympics on television when she was younger was “one of the reasons I started swimming. If I make the Olympic team, my next goal will be to medal.”
Leverenz is an up-and-comer who picked up three medals, including a gold in the 400-meter IM, at the 2007 Nationals. Leverenz was excited about her peformance at the Grand Prix thus far, which has included a third-place finish in the 400 IM and a ninth-place finish in the 400-meter freestyle. She also led the preliminaries in the 200-meter breaststroke but dropped out before the final race.
“I’ve been doing a lot of training,” Leverenz said. “I’ve picked up a lot more than I’ve ever done. If I’m able to go close to my best times or my best times here, that definitely will drop at the trials.”
Along with her training in the pool, Leverenz has also had to learn to deal with the auras of the former Olympians she’s been racing.
“I was intimidated my first couple times,” said Leverenz, who is set to compete in the 100-meter butterfly, 100-meter breaststroke and 200-meter IM finals today. “But I’ve gotten to know Katie Hoff and we’re friends now. Now it’s fun and a challenge to race against them, to see how we pair up.”
Ritter was a 17-time NCAA All-American for the Wildcats and led the U.S. team with five medals (three gold) at the 2007 World University Games. But he’s found, after turning professional in November, that the pro circuit is a jump up from the competition he faced in college.
“It’s definitely more intense,” said Ritter, who has finished 15th in the 100-meter freestyle, 13th in the 200 free and 24th in the 50 free at the Missouri Grand Prix. “Even U.S. Nationals a lot of times isn’t as fast as a meet like this. So it’s something I’m getting used to. I’ve swam professionals since I was a freshman in college, so I’ve kind of seen what it’s like, but to actually go through the process myself has been a lot of fun, for sure.”
Except for extending his holiday training for an extra week, Ritter has generally maintained the same training regimen with the Tuscon Ford Dealers Aquatics club he uses in a non-Olympic year and said that “keeps things normal.” But Ritter is still adjusting to the competition he now faces regularly.
“Coming to a meet like this, everyone’s swimming well, and sometimes it’s hard to keep your focus on what you’re doing,” Ritter said. “You see people going these ridiculous times... You have to stay focused on where you’re at. And for me personally, this is the best I’ve swam after Christmas training, so I’m excited about what I’m going. I’m kind of getting run over here a little bit, but I just got to keep my eyes on what I’m personally doing, and things will work out. Just as long as I don’t get distracted by that.”
Though his 2007 time in the 200 free ranked ninth in the world, Ritter will likely face a tougher road to the Olympics than Leverenz because of his freestyle specialty. If anything, though, that disadvantage will just fuel him to excel.
“To be honest, I never felt like I was well-known on the NCAA circuit in the first place,” said Ritter, who will swim in the 200 IM final today. “I was a late-comer... I feel like I’m not one of the guys in the forefront, I’m not one of the guys that everyone picks to make the Olympic team. And yeah, I’d say I’m kind of swimming with a chip on my shoulder.
“That mentality is kind of what fuels me in practice; that’s kind of what keeps me going. Hopefully, if everything goes well, I’ll be able to say that I’m not just another face in the crowd.”