Here’s what you should know about America’s best Olympic hope for gold in the 100 meter breaststroke.
She wears earplugs because she doesn’t like water in her ears. She eats Subway before every meet (we smell an ad campaign). She didn’t take swimming seriously until her senior year at Mountain View High School because she didn’t like the sport. And as a result, she only has three years of truly competitive swimming in her lungs.
“I didn’t want to swim because I knew it was going to be hard,” Breeja Larson, 20, said.
Not really. Not when you’re blessed with Larson’s 6-foot, muscular frame, her coachability and her unwavering will to win.
Larson’s mother, Marni, saw it from the time Breeja was a little girl. After bathing her daughter, she noticed a blue streak running down her belly. She asked if Breeja had raided the freezer for blueberries.
“She wouldn’t admit to eating them,” Marni Larson said. “She was determined to win, and she’ll still tell you: ‘I won that night.’ ”
Larson won something much bigger a month ago.
Three months after capturing the NCAA 100-yard breaststroke title in a U.S. record 57.71 seconds, the Texas A&M sophomore shifted to long-course and upset 2008 Olympic silver medalist Rebecca Soni and world-record holder Jessica Hardy to win the 100-meter breaststroke at the U.S. Olympic Trials in late June with a time of 1:05.92.
“I never heard of her before. Ever,” Hardy said of Larson. “But good for her. Now she’s the gold-medal favorite.”
The victory earned Larson a spot in the London Olympics, setting off a wild celebration by her parents and her Mesa Aquatics club coach, Brad Hering. Now a pastor in Puget Sound, Wash., Hering weathered more than a few verbal jabs and glares as he shouted his approval to Larson from the nosebleed seats in Omaha.
“I just lost it,” Hering said. “There were two ladies I elbowed at least three times and a bunch of other guys were looking at me like ‘What is his problem?’
“It was just pure joy pouring out. My wife couldn’t go with me but she said she heard me screaming live on TV.”
It is Hering who Larson credits with her getting her mind right. With a year at Mesa Westwood High and two years of prep swimming in Idaho under her belt, Larson came to Hering with a stroke he describes as “a beautiful mess.”
Larson’s coach at Mountain View, Glen Coy, had already noticed that Breeja was taking far too many strokes per length.
“He told me ‘count your strokes for 25 yards,’ and I’m pretty sure I took 30 when you should only take about 12,” Larson said, laughing.
But Hering didn’t try to change Larson’s stroke. He left that for her college coach, Steve Bultman.
Instead, he worked on her underwater pullouts, which he says “would have gagged a maggot.” He worked on eliminating drag. And, above all else, he worked on Larson’s faith. Faith in herself.
“Brad helped me realize what I could be,” Larson said. “He said ‘Within one year, I guarantee you can make a national team.’
“I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ But I just kept dropping seconds and told myself, ‘Stop limiting yourself. Tell yourself you will go faster and you will.’”
Larson had a number of factors working in her favor, Hering said, including genetics, humility, the right diet and a tireless work ethic.
“Breeja seemed to break a paradigm on physics and normal time drops,” Hering said. “I think it’s because she still has that joy of sport. A lot of people who swim from the time they’re 7 until they’re 18 lose that. They look like the greyhound that’s raced too any times.
“She’s been at this so short a time that she’s still hungry for more.”
If all goes well today, she’ll make the finals and swim for the ultimate prize Monday in front of her parents and sister, Mikel. What will she be thinking at the start of that pressure-packed race?
“Nothing,” Larson said. “Practice is for thinking. Racing is for doing. My friend calls it stupid fast. When you’re going stupid fast, it’s just pull, kick, pull, kick until you reach the wall.”