COLUMBIA — In nearly 15 years of swimming, Lori Halvorson had never seen anything like it.
The MU senior and two-year captain of the women's swimming team had swum in big meets. She had swum against some of the best swimmers in the world. But fireworks when people hit the wall? That was a first. And seeing swimmer after swimmer achieve their childhood dreams? That's something that every meet can't provide. The Olympic Trials, which she had qualified for the summer after her freshman year at MU, were not just a swim meet. They were a spectacle.
But when it was time for Halvorson to step onto the starting blocks none of that mattered. The pressure and the environment that had been so intimidating before faded away.
"You've got to be relaxed," Halvorson said. "You have to believe. You have to believe in everything that you've done. You have to believe in all your hard work. You have to believe in everywhere you've been."
Halvorson has been more places than most. In 21 years, she and her family have moved 17 different times. Columbia is just the most recent place that Halvorson is calling home, but her success for the Tigers has been a product of that unwavering focus and confidence that she showed at the trials. One of Halvorson's biggest strengths has been that ability to succeed no matter her environment.
A lot of the changes in that environment took place early on. Halvorson's father works in construction, and with each move up the chain came a move around the country. After she was born in Wyoming, Halvorson's family moved 12 times before landing in Fort Smith, Ark., when she was 6. Fort Smith became home to Halvorson's fourth different first grade class.
Halvorson says that with each move, she found something that made the transition easier. In Fort Smith she found swimming. Halvorson had taken swim lessons before, but this latest stop found Halvorson on her first competitive swim team. Swimming brought more friends than ever before. The amount of time spent with teammates created an indelible bond.
Those connections made it that much harder when Halvorson's parents announced that the family was relocating 85 miles away to Bentonville, Ark.
"Every time my dad would come in, my dad would tell us we were going to move, me and my sisters would cry and cry," Halvorson said.
"I remember one time I wrote my dad's boss a letter saying 'Please don't make us move.'"
Two stops later, the Halvorsons landed in Tulsa, Okla., which Halvorson claims as her hometown. By the time she started eighth grade in Tulsa, swimming was no longer a new-found past time. Halvorson's success in the pool had forced her to choose whether to devote her time to swimming or the other sport she had played most of her life: basketball.
The choice to spend her time in the pool didn't take long to pay off. Halvorson started breaking Oklahoma records almost immediately. During that first swim season in Oklahoma, Halvorson heard about seniors going off to Division I schools. After watching the swim world's biggest competition, she decided that she wanted to be able to compete in the biggest meets the U.S. had to offer.
"After the 2000 Olympics I was just like, 'Yeah. I want to go to college and compete at the NCAA's,'" Halvorson said.
As the recruiting process began, the moves of the Halvorson family and Halvorson's swimming career crossed paths once more. While Halvorson was considering several different universities, including MU, Halvorson's father had been offered a position in Columbia. Many college students look forward to life on their own when they go off to school, and Halvorson was no different.
"One of the reasons on the con list in coming to Missouri was that I wanted to be out on my own and away from my family," Halvorson said.
While Halvorson was wary about making the move to Columbia a family affair, her parents were excited about the prospect of being near their daughter. When Halvorson finally did choose MU, her mother wanted to leave nothing to chance.
"When she told me that she had chosen Mizzou, I handed her the phone and told her to call her dad," Candy Halvorson said. "I didn't want her to change her mind."
When Halvorson finally arrived at MU, swim coach Brian Hoffer landed an athlete that he calls "one of the best" in school history. Halvorson placed 42nd in the 200-meter freestyle and didn't go on to the Olympics, but she holds three individual school records, several other relay records and for two straight seasons has been chosen by her teammates as a captain.
Early on Hoffer saw just what sort of competitor he had in Halvorson. She was struggling with an elbow injury she suffered in high school. Each time the elbow would start to heal and Hoffer thought she was moving towards full strength, the workouts would intensify, but then the injury would flare up again. It took a while before Hoffer realized that no matter what sort of pain Halvorson was going through, she just kept on swimming.
"It kept flaring up because I would just keep going harder on her and she wouldn't say anything," Hoffer said. "I had to tell her to put the brakes on because she would just keep going."
That ability to just keep going has become a theme for Halvorson. Where she might be living or how difficult things were upon arriving at a new place never detracted from her ability to be successful.
"She had to stay true to herself no matter what was going on around her," Hoffer said.
"That's her strength. No matter what's going on around her she knows what she wants and where she wants to go."