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Road to the Olympics is a trial by water


Last month, while much of Oregon was focused on the Olympic track hopefuls gathered in Eugene, a group of Oregon athletes converged in Omaha for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials.

Forty athletes with Oregon ties competed at some point during the Olympic Team Trials, held June 25 to July 1 at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb. NBC’s televised coverage was actually a very small part of the swim meet — there were more than 1,400 swimmers that competed during the very long week.

The Olympic Trials, which occur every four years, are to a football fan the Super Bowl, to a baseball junky the World Series, or a hoopster the NBA Finals. But in reality, for a competitive swimmer it is even bigger than those events. The pressure-packed trials allow only two people from each event to move on to the real event: the 2012 London Olympics.

The selection process is brutal and unforgiving. Third place can feel worse than 100th.

The road to the Olympic Trials is filled with 4 a.m. wake-up calls — not one, not two, not three, but up to five mornings a week. Time management is of essence to be successful in the classroom and in the pool. There are very few cheerleaders on this path, which is usually a two-year training cycle leading to the trials.

Each daily practice starts with a splash for one to two hours in the morning, followed by a day at school, then another two to three hours of practice that same afternoon. There may be up to 9 practices a week. Training usually is 48-50 weeks a year. This schedule is a standard regime in the swimming ranks.

There is no glitz in getting up at 0-dark-thirty for these young people. As the parent of five swimmers, I say it is up to them to get up and drive to practice, but occasionally I cave and drive, letting them sleep the 30 minutes it takes to get to practice.

The other high school students and staff never see the kids practice, as the “field” is usually not at the school. This is totally opposite from other sports that are performed on the school grounds. It is very easy to see practice happening for football, basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball or nearly every other sport. Only a handful of folks outside the parents themselves ever show up to the swim meets, even though they are free.

True, there are no collisions to be seen, no three-pointers being drained, no grand slams. There are a few that know and understand the physical and mental demands of moving though the water fast. Those few folks will get excited for these athletes, and with good reason — these are incredible athletes!

USA Swimming wants these athletes because the U.S. has dominated world swimming for more than 50 years at every Olympic cycle, and desires to continue this rich tradition.

My son Gabriel Rooker, a 2012 Forest Grove High School graduate and a three-time OSAA Class 6A state breaststroke champion, was one of the 40 swimmers with Oregon connections who swam at the Olympic Trials last month.

Gabriel, who will attend LSU next fall on a partial swim scholarship, qualified for the Olympic Trials in two events: the 100- and 200-meter breaststrokes.

As a parent, I look forward to the day I will no longer have to make that nearly extra house payment each month to the swim club and gas station. These young athletes are active and are not sitting around — only long enough to consume lots of food. I don’t think my pocket book will miss that either.

But all these extra costs should be tempered with the understanding that they have been trained in water safety. My children started swim lessons because I was concerned for their safety. Little did I know they would continue competitively.

There is a large population right here in Forest Grove that is at increased risk for drowning, with a large body of water not very far away (Hagg Lake), not to mention the Pacific Ocean.

As the parent of five children, I would certainly encourage some trips to the Forest Grove Aquatic Center to learn about the swim lesson opportunities.

Or you may want to do as we did. My wife, a non-swimmer, got a month pass for August and let the kids play in the shallow water on hot summer days, then the kids started the lessons in the fall.

It worked for us.

Greg Rooker is the parent of several Forest Grove High School student-athletes.