As thousands of people watch in Omaha, Nebraska, Elizabeth Pelton walks out onto the pool deck at the 2012 Olympic Trials. With music blaring in her headphones blocking out the screaming crowd, she adjusts her black T2 Aquatic swim cap. She strips down to her black speed suit, nerves jolting through her body. Pelton takes out her headphones and hears the crowd around her. Putting on her black goggles, she jumps into the pool with the other competitors. The roar of the crowd surrounds her as she holds on the wall, ready to push off.
The monotone voice of the announcer echoes through the stadium.
“Take your marks.”
She pulls her body closer to the wall, waiting in her racing position. Then a harsh beep sounds, signifying the start of her last race at one of the biggest meets of her career. Because she placed third in the 200-meter individual medley a few days earlier and only the top two swimmers from the trials qualify for the Olympics, this is Pelton’s last chance to make the 2012 Olympic team.
She pushes off the wall and starts powering through the water, her long, rhythmic stroke creating waves. Pelton glides elegantly into the first turn, keeping pace with the competition. With only a blue-and-yellow lane line between them, Missy Franklin begins to pull ahead after the first turn. After the third turn, Elizabeth Beisel pulls ahead.
With the crowd loudly cheering and 50 meters left to go, Pelton pushes herself even harder. Now, she and Beisel are neck and neck with two meters left. She reaches out her hand, and her fingers brush the wall. She lifts her head up from the water and looks at the scoreboard.
Third. Next to the number two on the monitor, it says “Elizabeth” — it’s just the wrong one.
By the time Elizabeth Pelton was 12 years old, she had already accomplished things many swimmers only dream about. She broke countless age-group records years earlier and made her first Olympic trials at the age of 12. Her parents realized their daughter could have a successful future in the sport.
Deciding their Connecticut swim club wasn’t competitive enough to offer their daughter the resources she would need to be the best she could, her family made the joint decision to move to Baltimore. This gave Pelton and her older brother, Gregory, the opportunity to swim at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, home to Olympians Katie Hoff and Michael Phelps.
“It wasn’t just an environment of a swim team, and it’s fun,” Pelton says. “If you are there, you are trying to be on the national team or the national junior team or top five in the country, so it elevated my expectations.”
At NBAC, Pelton’s primary coach from ages 13 to 15 was Paul Yetter. He helped her set higher goals than the ones she had back in Connecticut. Yetter showed her the top times of collegiate swimmers around the country for her to try to beat and tried to decrease her times gradually.
“She had reached a level where she was better than her peers by quite a distance,” Yetter says. “I thought she would be excited by those kind of challenges — that’s Liz’s personality.”
Under Yetter’s supervision, Pelton also worked on improving her endurance. Yetter remarked that from the beginning Pelton’s strength was her speed, and she was able to develop “a great aerobic capacity.”
She soon started to realize just how much potential she had.
“It really kicked in once I made my first world championship team in 2009, right after Beijing,” says Pelton. “It was a few years after we moved to Baltimore. But that was when I was like, wow, OK, like I’m second best in the United States, and I’m 15.”
Many kids who were in the elite group at NBAC with Pelton were homeschooled in order to free up more time for swimming and give them the ability to go on extended trips. Pelton’s parents also adopted homeschooling starting in eighth grade, which allowed her to go to practice at 6 a.m. and then again in the afternoon.
“Honestly, she learned more, she said, in homeschooling than she ever did in school. So it worked out really great,” her mother Anne Pelton says.
Once she began high school, her homeschooling switched to a co-op, a meeting with a group of students and teachers once a week to conduct activities such as labs. She continued to be homeschooled by completing an online program, which she took part in until she came to UC Berkeley.
Pelton’s experience differed from that of a normal high-school student. She still attended dances and prom with students from her school, but the only people she saw every day were her teammates. But she still doesn’t think she missed out on anything.
“It was really fulfilling, it still is, to do something that not a lot of people get to do,” Pelton says. “And, in my mind, I was like, ‘Well, I could be studying for my physics test, but with my program I finished physics in three months, and I got to go to Rome for world championships and represent the U.S. and win a medal.’ ”
Yetter left Baltimore in 2009, leaving Pelton to train under Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps’ coach, for three years. Heading into her senior year, Pelton decided she wanted to train with her former coach once again to prepare for the 2012 Olympic Trials the coming summer. So Pelton moved down to Naples, Florida, for her senior year to train with Yetter at the new T2 Aquatics.
In Naples, Pelton lived with a host family five minutes from the beach and was able to train at an outdoor swimming pool. Despite being far away from her family, this year gave her a taste of independence that was to come at college. She describes it as “one of the greatest years” of her life.
Going into (the 2012) Olympic Trials, I was like, ‘OK, this is going to be one of those pivotal moments in life where you look back and go, that’s where my life changed,’ ” Pelton says. “If I make the team, I’m going to be an Olympian, but if I don’t, then I have that on me as not making the team.”
Franklin — now Pelton’s teammate at Cal — was expected to dominate the 200-meter backstroke, which left Pelton and Beisel fighting for second and the last spot on the Olympic team.
“It was between me and my best friend,” Pelton says.
As she walked out of the underground room where the swimmers wait minutes before a race, the two swimmers stopped and gave each other a look. Pelton describes it as a “Whatever happens, buddy” kind of moment. They gave each other a hug and walked out as competitors.
Pelton raced in three events during the trials, finishing 15th in the semifinals of the 100-meter free — which meant she didn’t qualify for the finals — in addition to finishing third in the 200-meter back and the 200-meter IM.
“There is this notorious third-place club that you really, really do not want to get an invitation to,” Pelton says. “And if you do, don’t accept it, because there is nothing like missing the Olympic team, by not even one spot or something, but two tenths of a second.”
In her 200-meter backstroke loss, Pelton fell to Beisel by 0.08 of a second. In the 200-meter IM, she finished 0.25 behind the second-place swimmer.
“I still have moments where I look back, like, what went wrong,” Pelton says. “I have vivid moments in the race where I knew, ‘OK, this is it. It’s either going to happen or not.’ In that moment, I was kind of in disbelief, and it kind of felt like a movie, to be honest.”
Pelton admits it took her a while to move on. It took the whole family a while to move on.
“It was hard for all of us,” Anne says. “It just felt like it was not meant to be, to be that close in two races. I think she learned a lot about dealing with disappointment and stuff. I think we all did. I pretty much feel like now, if we can deal that, we can handle anything. This is life.”
Her first year at Cal, Pelton had the best season of her career. Under head coach Teri McKeever, Pelton set times that would have easily gotten her onto the Olympic team. At the NCAAs, she helped Cal place second overall. Pelton’s individual performance was phenomenal, breaking the American, U.S. Open and NCAA record in the 200-yard backstroke, 1:47.84. She also won NCAA Swimmer of the Year and NCAA Swimmer of the Meet after receiving seven All-American honors at the championships.
As her time at Cal has continued, success has become team oriented. And even though she faces pressure for the future, including questions of the 2016 Olympics, Pelton hasn’t let that get to her head.
“If I do everything I am capable of no matter what happens, I will be content,” Pelton says. “I just want to know there is nothing more I could have done.”
Part of why she did so well in the beginning of her college career was following along with the system the Cal coaches established for her.
“One of the things that Elizabeth did a great job with was jumping into our program and trusting it and not looking back,” Cal associate head coach Kristen Cunnane says. “I just like being around her.”
In most relay races, she is last, “the anchor,” bringing her team in for the victory or defeat. It is up to her, but she is not afraid of the pressure. In her own words, the person who finishes a relay has to be “fearless.”
And she is.
Alaina Getzenberg covers women’s swim. Contact her at [email protected]