By ERIC WITTMERSHAUS
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
When she thinks back to her first Olympic Swim Trials in 2008, Stanford's Maya DiRado remembers herself as a high school-aged ball of nerves.
“There’s really no way to describe it,” the Maria Carrillo graduate said of the massive meet in Omaha, Neb., which begins today, lasts for more than a week and has about 1,900 athletes competing in front as many as 13,000 people. With a couple of exceptions for relay teams, only the top two swimmers in each event move on to London.
“I had no shot of making the team last time I went,” said DiRado, who has the nation’s fourth-fastest qualifying time in the 400-meter individual medley, which she will swim today. “I didn’t realize until after my first race, when I was so nervous I got sick afterward, how much the meet had affected me.”
Dan Greaves of Santa Rosa’s Neptune Swimming, who coached DiRado and six other Empire swimmers who are in Omaha for the trials, said the meet is the most intense event most top-level swimmers will face.
“The feeling on the deck is unlike any other meet that anyone goes to,” he said. “There’s just pressure all around. You can cut it with a knife.”
At most meets, an athlete swims as a member of a club or school team, but “This one is all about you,” Greaves said. “There’s no winner other than the people who make the team.”
Trials first-timers Rebecca Baxley of Analy, Taylor Young of Cardinal Newman and Sophia Yamauchi of UC Santa Barbara got a preview of what’s in store during practice over the weekend.
“It was unbelievable,” Baxley said Sunday. The pool was crazy … huge, huge. The work they've done on that place, I can’t believe I’m swimming in it.”
DiRado, a nine-time All-American halfway through her career at Stanford, may represent the North Coast’s best shot of landing a swimmer on this year’s Olympic team. She has been a member of the U.S. National Team and won a gold medal in the 400 IM at the 2011 World University Games in China. In addition to being seeded fourth in the 400 IM, DiRado’s times in the 200 IM and the 200 back stroke rank fifth and seventh, respectively. Energy permitting, she’ll compete in the 200-meter freestyle, which sends six swimmers to London because participants for relays are selected from that event.
For Cal’s Amanda Sims, a 10-time All-American, this will be her third trials. Her best event of the three she will swim is the 100-meter butterfly. She’s won two NCAA titles in the event and is ranked 14th.
“It’s a pretty thick event,” Sims said of the competition she’ll face in the 100 fly. “I swim with some other girls who should be finaling in the event.”
Sims, who graduated from Montgomery High in 2003, finished up at Cal in December, earning a degree in history. Since graduating, she’s spent most of her time training and looking ahead to starting a career. In addition to the 100 fly, she’ll compete in the 100 backstroke and 50 freestyle.
Santa Rosa High graduate Molly Hannis is heading to her second trials. She's coming off a strong freshman season at the University of Tennessee. Her highlight swimming for the Vols thus far has been the Southeastern Conference championships, which Tennessee hosted. Hannis won the 100-meter breast stroke and helped her team to a second-place finish.
"Being able to win at home was pretty amazing," Hannis said.
She will compete in the 100 breast on Tuesday and the 200 breast on Friday. That’s an unusually long layoff between events, but she likes her schedule.
“You can kind of recharge and rest for your second event,” Hannis said. “I like that I start the second day (of the whole meet). I can kind of relax the first day and support my teammates.”
Most swimmers will compete with teammates and family cheering them on, but Sophia and Penelope Yamauchi will root for one another. The sisters, both Montgomery grads, qualified for trials at the 2011 Santa Clara meet. Their whole family is going to be on hand to watch Sophia on Tuesday and Penelope on Friday.
Penelope Yamauchi, who credited her mother for the sisters’ success, graduated in May with a degree in communications from Arizona State and said she’s calm heading into the meet. She missed Olympic Trials in 2008 by one-tenth of a second and is elated to have qualified for this year’s.
“I’ve never been less nervous for a meet,” she said while getting ready to leave for Omaha on Sunday. “There’s no pressure because it’s not like I’m trying to get a scholarship somewhere. I’m done with my collegiate career … and now it’s just kind of fun for me.”
Sophia Yamauchi is coming off her sophomore year at UC Santa Barbara and is competing in the 100 breast stroke, although lately she has been coming on strong in the 200 IM, where she holds a school record. In addition to her family support, she’ll have 15 UCSB teammates swimming in the trials and cheering her on.
“We can all use each other’s energy and pump each other up,” she said.
For the two high school swimmers, Baxley and Young, the trials put them in front of top collegiate coaches, who can begin contacting them with scholarship offers July1. But both girls are focusing specifically on their own events, trying to equal their qualifying times that got them to Omaha. Partly because of the trials’ pressure-cooker environment, the vast majority of swimmers
in Omaha won’t beat their qualifying times.
“When I got these times … I wasn’t really nervous at those meets,” Young said. “Now that I’m here, my goal is to get the time I got here with while under a lot of pressure.”
Young qualified in the 100 breast last July and in the 200 breast in January, but she was excited when her friend Baxley qualified earlier this month in the 100 back.
“I was so happy she qualified because I was already nervous,” Young said. “I didn’t want to go alone.”
Eric Wittmershaus is The Press Democrat's online sports editor. You can reach him at 521-5433 or email@example.com.