The crowd cheered loudly for all the recognizable names — from Missy Franklin, to Ryan Lochte, Nathan Adrian to Matt Grevers and many more among the lot — from last year’s London Olympic Games.
But none competing this week at Mesa’s Skyline Aquatics Center was cheered more vociferously than the hometown champion herself, Mesa’s own Breeja Larson.
Larson, who won the 200 meter breaststroke, her first event at the Mesa Grand Prix, has experienced enough for a lifetime over the past 12 months. But coming home is still coming home.
“The smell — I came home and it smells like home,” said Larson, who in addition to her Olympic efforts is currently a junior at Texas A&M University. “College is a little different because all the pools are indoors. Smelling this, it brings back happy memories.”
The event ran Thursday through Saturday at Skyline as part of the USA Swimming Arena Grand Prix Series that leads up to the U.S. and World Championships this summer.
Larson and some of the other big names at the event certainly weren’t complaining that Skyline, which opened two years ago, is an outdoor pool. Most of the facilitis on the U.S. Swimming schedule are traditional indoor sites. And maybe there’s something to the “smell” factor — or at least the feel of being outdoors at Skyline. For one, there’s less of that pungent chlorine smell that permeates an indoor facility. There’s also the fact of being outside, under the natural sunlight.
“I’ve never been to Arizona before,” said Lochte, one of the more highly visible competitors in London whose own reality television show debuts on the E! network on April 21. “I’ve never been to this facility before; neither have most of the other (national) team members. It’s such a great facility. I’m just getting my tan on and loving it.”
Missy Franklin, a 17-year-old who won four golds in London, added that “there’s something about an outdoor pool that makes it more relaxed than other meets.
“There’s so much interaction with fans, more than normal.”
But for Larson, swimming outside is a return to home.
Larson had returned home the night before the meet began, her father Kjell Larson said. Instead of staying at a hotel, she’s staying with family.
And while it would seem normal for the large Larson family to cheer on their Olympic hero, watching Breeja swim live, in person, hasn’t happened much for the family.
“It’s like the only ones I get to see,” said Phoebe Larson, Breeja’s 15-year-old sister.
Usually her parents travel to her big meets, while the rest of her family watches online or on video shot on cellphones, said Marni Larson, Breeja’s mother. While many swim families might be use to attending meets, Breeja didn’t begin competitively swimming until about four years ago.
“Honestly, Mesa Aquatics brought me in,” she said. “It was the first club I ever swam for and they supported me both emotionally and physically.”
Breeja swam in the Mesa swim program every summer until she turned 13, Marni said.
“It was like pulling teeth to get her to swim,” Kjell said. “She said it was boring going back and forth, but it took awhile for her to realize that the racing was the fun part.”
Instead, Breeja turned to softball, volleyball and track in middle school and high school.
“We told our two oldest in seventh and eighth grade that we weren’t going to pay for college and they were going to have to find another way,” her father recalled.
After competing in a YMCA summer recreational swimming program while the family briefly relocated to Boise, Idaho, Breeja started posting times that were more than competitive, Kjell said.
“I just looked at her and I said—nothing,” he said. “With those times, I just put my hands in the air and said, ‘Breeja, come on.’”
She moved back to Arizona, living with her aunt and uncle and began training, eventually earning a scholarship to Texas A&M after placing second in the 100 meter breaststroke while attending Mountain View High School.
Since going to college, her family has watched her transform from a “tall, gangly” girl to a strong, coordinated “Olympian,” her father said.
“That’s the thing with these meets, she just keeps on shaving time off,” Kjell said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
With the meet in Mesa, the family — about 15 members in total — finally gets a chance to watch her together, with sister, aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents in the stands cheering her name.
“Now we get to be the typical swim parents,” Marni said.
“It’s been hard, taking off work and spending the money to go to meets,” Kjell said. “But you can always make more money, there’s only so many of these.”
Breeja’s uncle, Nathan, who has down syndrome, never leaves a meet without giving her a hug, explained Kjell.
This meet was no exception.
While the family already has one top-flight swimmer, there may be another Larson coming up. The family calls Tabitha “Little Breeja.”
“Same mold, same strength, just a little carbon copy,” Marni said smiling, as Tabitha playfully lifted her arms up to show off her arm strength.
“She was supposed to be my little track star,” Kjell said laughing. “Tabitha means gazelle in Aramaic.”
But if the girls are anything like their sister, he said, they won’t choose until they’re halfway through high school.
What’s her advice for the young swimmers that line the pool?
“They should do what they want to do, whether that’s bake, play an instrument or swimming,” she said. “Just as long as it’s what they want to do.”
To be great at anything, she said, you need the personal drive.
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