LONDON Breeja Larson didnt come out of nowhere. She is a Texas A&M Aggie by way of Mesa, Ariz., then Boise, and Mesa again. She isnt an overnight success, either, though it did take her only three years of competitive swimming to get here.
Still, Larsons face at the U.S. Olympic Trials couldnt belie the fact that she was surprised as anybody when she beat Rebecca Soni and Jessica Hardy to win the 100-meter breaststroke. Soni is the best breaststroker in the world and still the favorite to win Olympic gold in the event Monday, while Hardy is the world record-holder.
Ive been visualizing this forever, Larson said of becoming an Olympian. But it was almost taboo to say out loud.
On her bio page in the A&M media guide for the 2011-12 season, Larson lists the Olympics as the place she would most like to go of any place in the world. She and teammate Cammile Adams are the first Aggie swimmers to qualify for the Olympics in individual events. Adams will compete in the 200 butterfly. Christine Marshall became the schools first swimmer to compete in an Olympics when she helped the 800 freestyle relay team to the bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Games.
Steve Bultman, named an assistant Team USA assistant coach, has overseen a rising A&M program. His Aggies have had five top-10 NCAA finishes in the past five years, including a school-best fourth in 2008 and sixth last year.
People are starting to notice us, Bultman said. Winning individual (U.S. Olympic Trials) events can only help. Most of the top recruits want to do well at NCAAs. They have high aspirations. They also want to make national and international teams and go to the Olympics. I think they can see now that, hey, A&M can take you there.
Larson wouldnt be here without the Aggies.
Her pre-college swimming career was so abbreviated that college coaches had never heard of her.
She had moved with her family to Boise, and her new high school lacked a swim program. Larson was swimming only four hours a week. It was hardly the sort of schedule to merit even consideration for a scholarship, something Larson knew she needed to attend college. So, before her senior year, Larson moved in with an aunt and uncle in Mesa, Ariz., allowing her to swim four hours a day.
Her Mesa Aquatics Club coach, Brad Hering, is friends with A&M mens swimming coach Jay Holmes, which is how Larson ended up with Bultman in Aggieland.
Steve gave me the biggest opportunity I could have asked for, Larson said. He took a big risk recruiting me. It was really hard. I was the slowest kicker. I probably moved backwards a little bit. In all of the drills and everything, I was always last into the wall. Everyone had to be really patient, waiting for Breeja to come in so we could finish.
The wait was short, as Larson was second in the 200-yard breaststroke at the NCAA Championships as a freshman and won the event in March as a sophomore.
Still, no one saw her victory in Omaha coming.
At the U.S. Trials, Larson touched in a personal-best 1:05.92 to Sonis 1:05.99. Soni is seeded first, with a world-best 1:05.82 this season, while Larsons 1:05.92 ranks second. Hardy, who did not qualify for the Olympics in the event, has the third-best time in the world this year, with Japans Satomi Suzuki fourth (1:06.80).
I, along with everybody else, was very excited and stunned by her race, Soni, a team captain, said of Larson. Shes an amazing swimmer. Even from when I was watching her at NCAAs this past March, I knew she was going to be one of the top competitors. I didnt know that she was to get there quite so fast.
I cant lie and say I wasnt a little disappointed when I touched the wall. But my goal at Trials was to make the meet, and I did, and now I can kind of brush the pressure off on her. Im like, You won Trials; you have to win at the Olympics. Looking forward to Monday night, if were both in the finals, I really would love to go 1-2 for Team USA, whether its me or her. Shes one of the fresh faces just like Missy (Franklin).