A little more than a year ago, a junior at Auburn named Micah Lawrence swam the 200-yard breaststroke at the NCAA championships.
And she blew it.
Lawrence finished 21st in what was her best event. That was worse than she had done as a freshman. Like a rock in a swimming pool, her career seemed to be plummeting steadily downward.
Fast forward to last week. Lawrence made the U.S. Olympic team, finishing No. 2 in the country in the 200-meter breaststroke.
At 21, she is the youngest of the five SwimMAC Carolina athletes on their way to London to swim in the Summer Olympics.
The short version is that Lawrence found new swimming life in Charlotte after a change of scenery. Although Auburns coaches werent too hot on the idea at the time, Lawrence said, she decided to take a one-year leave of absence for the 2011-12 school year and move to Charlotte to train at SwimMAC under head coach David Marsh.
Taking the year off from Auburn wasnt because Lawrence didnt like school. She said, in fact, it was because she liked it too much.
I wasnt putting the effort I wanted into swimming, Lawrence said. I had found another passion graphic design. And it was really taking away from my swimming. School and swimming were difficult to do at the same time. I forgot to eat a lot of times, because I was so into what I was doing academically. So knowing this was an Olympic year and probably my last hurrah in swimming, I decided to put everything into that and see what I could accomplish.
Lawrence plans to go back to Auburn after the Olympics for her senior year. Then she will graduate and pursue a career in graphic design. But for now, she has realized an Olympic dream she first had at age 7, when Olympic gold medalist Josh Davis visited her church in Texas and let her and some of the other children hold one of his gold medals.
Lawrence grew up in Pflugerville, Texas, which is a town of about 47,000 people that is about 30 minutes outside of Austin. Micah was the third of four children all girls. Both her parents were college athletes, primarily in soccer, and soccer was the households No. 1 sport for awhile.
But when the oldest of the girls injured a knee playing soccer, the doctor prescribed swimming as a way to stay in shape. The younger sisters all followed.
Lawrence swam year-round, mostly without complaint except for a period when she was about 13.
I told my parents then that swimming was too hard and that it needed to stop so I could get my grades up, she said with a smile. And my grades actually went down during that month that I quit. So they shoved me back into the pool.
She was good enough to be recruited to Auburn. The nearby University of Texas wanted her, too, but Lawrence had decided she wanted to go out of state to school. But she wasnt considered a cant-miss prospect. Auburn originally wanted her only as a recruited walk-on before relenting and giving a partial scholarship.
All that is to say that Lawrence would have been a huge underdog to make the U.S. Olympic team if you were setting odds a year ago. But she steadily has gotten better during her time in Charlotte, adding considerable strength to her 6-foot frame. Teammates have also noticed the blossoming of Lawrences personality as her natural shyness has started to recede.
And then came last week. Lawrence finished second in the 200 breaststroke to Rebecca Soni, considered the best American in the stroke. Lawrences personal-best time in the event (2:23.03) made her the third-fastest swimmer in the event in 2012, trailing only Soni and a Japanese swimmer. Im in shock, Lawrence said immediately after coming out of the water.
It was a long way from those NCAA championships. It made Lawrence a medal contender in London. And it made Lawrence realize once more that her unconventional path especially the year in Charlotte has paid more dividends than she could have ever imagined.