Cali Rowland: Big fish in a chlorinated pond
Competitive swimmer Cali Rowland finds her bliss diving into the cool waters of the Forest Grove Aquatic Center swimming pool. She breaks the surface in gasps of breath, trailing bubbles leaving any trace of a bad day behind in the pull-kick rhythm of the swim.
The pool is a place where she lets go and tests her limits.
"What I accomplish has everything to do with how I train and what I put into it," said Rowland.
Every week the 17-year-old Forest Grove High School student, who'll be a senior this fall, trains with the Forest Grove Swim Club during the summer's long-course season. She's been competing with the club since she was eight years old and swims year-round, competing also for FGHS.
"The club and the team is like a big family. I've grown up around the same people and we've become really close," she said.
In her nine years of competition she's felt the support of an entire community at her back, gained confidence and discovered a sense of accountability.
"I have always liked being in the water. If I'm having a bad day, I go and I swim and I feel so much better," said Rowland.
This year Rowland made the cut for the 2017 USA Swimming Futures meet in Santa Clara, Calif., Aug. 3-6, attending the once-a-year meet for the third time in her swimming career. It was by far her best performance, according to Coach Tabor Waterstreet.
"It's about five stages away from the Olympics — there's a little perspective on what she's accomplished," said Waterstreet.
Rowland qualified to swim the 100 meter breaststroke at Futures, beating the qualifying time of 1:16.19 with a 1:15.84, placing 32nd. After the preliminary round she'd improved to 23rd place, but Rowland shone during the 200 breaststroke event, taking seventh place in the finals. It was her first time swimming in the main event — the A finals — where swimmers compete for places first through ninth.
"Everyone is super close in times and are all going the same speed so it's really exciting," said Rowland. "It's hard to get into finals — the only difference between people is hundredths of a second."
Rowland laughed, recalling her excitement.
"I don't think that I will ever be satisfied with how I swim. There's always more to work on but I think that I had a very successful weekend," she said. "I'm happy and excited to work on it and get better."
Next year she's shooting for the next level up — Junior Nationals.
"I'm hoping next year that I'll have teammates with me," said Rowland. "That's not something that I can control, but I can root for them."
She sees an abundance of talent in her teammates — calling on swimmers Daphne Janko and Brandy Urstadt to set their sights on it.
"She's a very aware, considerate person, who takes charge of the team when it's necessary," said Waterstreet. "She leads more by example than words."
Though the biggest meets and championships happen in the summer, Rowland begins thinking about her goals a year in advance.
"It's something you think about at the very beginning of the season," she said. "I think about it when I'm training so to push myself to get to that big stage and perform well."
But performing well can be difficult in an inconsistent environment, and over the last three years Rowland has seen her coaches change frequently.
"Adapting to having a new coach and adapting to their different style has definitely been a huge challenge," she said.
Last year she had to attend the Futures meet solo — just 16, nervous, and without the guidance of a coach. But she's found stability and full support this year from Coach Waterstreet — along with some surprises, too.
"I like to get the swimmers outside of their box of just swimming back and forth in the pool, and show how an athlete how their full bodies work," said Waterstreet.
So he takes his swimmers to dry land and has them try a new thing or two, setting up cross-fit training and obstacle courses for the team — things like carrying sandbags up and down stairs, army crawls in mud, tire flipping and climbing vertical ropes.
"You prove something to yourself," said Rowland. "It really helps with my confidence, to be able to do things that I'd never thought I could before. It pushes you in different ways. I think that's really important for going to the next level — mix up training and get out of the pool."
And Rowland will take what she can get if she's going to make the cut for the Olympic trials — a goal she knows will take tremendous effort. For now, she plans on swimming in college and studying sports medicine or kinesiology.
"College is a way I can keep swimming and living the dream I've been living since I was 8," said Rowland. "I honestly want to just spend as long as I can doing the thing that I love — swimming."