In one of the splashiest nights ever for Charlotte swimmers at the U.S. Olympic Trials Tuesday, three members of SwimMAC Carolina's Team Elite qualified in the space of 45 minutes to go to Rio.
Kathleen Baker, Katie Meili and Ryan Lochte all earned spots on the U.S. Olympic swim team and will compete in Brazil in August by virtue of their performances on the third night of the eight-night meet. Baker and Meili each made their first Olympic team. Lochte made his fourth.
Baker couldn't stop smiling in a poolside interview with NBC shortly after making the squad by finishing second in the 100 backstroke final. “I am literally shocked,” she said. “I'm about to cry. This is so amazing and I am so happy to be an Olympian. This is awesome!”
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Baker, 19, is originally from Winston-Salem. At age 14 and already a swimming prodigy, she moved to Charlotte so she could swim for SwimMAC. Home-schooled so that she could better mesh her academic schedule with her swimming, Baker was one of the top recruits in the country a year ago and just completed her freshman year at Cal-Berkeley. She returned to Charlotte in late April to continue her training with SwimMAC.
Baker said in an interview with the Observer just before these Trials that she felt like the 100 backstroke would be her best shot to make the team. The top two in each event earn a spot. Baker knew the field would be stacked, however, and would include 2012 Olympic star Missy Franklin – whom Baker had never beaten.
But, Baker said, she had come close enough to Franklin recently that “this is one of the first times that I feel like ‘Oh, it's a race,’ and not that she's an unattainable goal.”
Baker beat Franklin Tuesday night, however. In fact, Franklin finished a surprising seventh and Natalie Coughlin was eighth – dead last – in the final. Those two have been America's best in the event for the past several years.
But a new crop of swimmers is emerging at these Trials. Olivia Smoliga won the 100 backstroke in 59.02 seconds to qualify, and Baker was second at 59.29.
Another one of those emerging swimmers is Meili, 25, who is from Colleyville, Texas, and graduated from Columbia in 2013. Meili moved to Charlotte after that to train with head coach David Marsh, and she has become one of America's best in the breaststroke.
Needing to finish in the top two Tuesday to make the squad in the 100 breaststroke, Meili led briefly and ended up second to Indiana University's Lilly King with a time of 1:06.07 to King's 1:05.20. “I'm just so grateful,” Meili said. “There are so many people who have supported me along the way.”
While both Meili and Baker will be in search of their first Olympic medals in Rio, Lochte will be hunting his 12th. Lochte has yet to post a top-two finish to qualify to swim an individual event in Rio during these Trials and has also been nursing a groin injury. But he nevertheless qualified for the men's 4x200 relay Tuesday night with a fourth-place finish in the 200 freestyle. Another SwimMAC Team Elite member, Tyler Clary, came close but did not qualify in the same event by finishing seventh.