11 Cal-affiliated athletes headed to Rio after U.S. Olympic Trials

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With Olympian Tyler Clary chasing him down, Jacob Pebley continues to accelerate toward the wall. In a final lunge, he touches, takes one quick glance at the board and notices a “2” next to his name. Pebley takes a moment to process before he smashes the water with his fist and starts shedding tears on national television.

Pebley, who has spent the last three years in Ryan Murphy’s shadow, qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team in the 200-meter backstroke by finishing second in the event. Earlier, Pebley had finished fourth in the 100-meter backstroke with the fifth-fastest time in the world this year — a testament to Team USA’s backstroke depth. Pebley will join Murphy, who swept the backstroke titles, later this summer as legitimate threats for Olympic medals.

To be among the 52-person U.S. Olympic Team, one must be the top two male or female in each of the 26 events or top six in the 100-meter and 200-meter freestyle events at the eight-day U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska. With almost 1,900 qualifiers, making the team is special; and an incredible 11 Cal-affiliated athletes punched their tickets to Rio de Janeiro — many of which are first-timers.

Former Olympic gold medalists Nathan Adrian and Anthony Ervin each made their third Olympic Team. Adrian, America’s top sprint freestyler for the last five years, won both the 50-meter freestyle and 100-meter freestyle and will play a role in a couple of Team USA’s Olympic relays. With his times, Adrian should be in the title hunt for both events while 35-year-old Ervin should be a contender in the 50-meter freestyle, his only individual event.

Josh Prenot, consistently one of the top swimmers in the NCAA for the last four years, has had quite the year of firsts. He won his first NCAA title back in March in the 400-meter individual medley. In his final chance at the Olympic Trials, he blazed past Team USA’s top breaststroke specialist Kevin Cordes and collegiate rival Will Licon to win the 200-meter breaststroke, earning his first Olympic berth. By falling .16 seconds short of the world record, Prenot should be the favorite in this event in Rio.

The Bears are amazingly talented in all of swimming’s disciplines. Tom Shields edged out Seth Stubblefield by .04 seconds to take the second spot in the 100-meter butterfly behind Michael Phelps. Shields will also swim in the 200-meter butterfly. By being an individual qualifier, Shields will join Murphy and Adrian as probable members of the 400-meter medley relay.

A self-proclaimed “momma on a mission,” Dana Vollmer joins Missy Franklin as the veterans among Cal’s women swimmers. Despite a hiatus due to a pregnancy, Vollmer managed to re-establish herself as one of the world’s premier swimmers in butterfly and freestyle. Franklin, on the other hand, has struggled the last few years; after suffering injuries a couple of summers ago, she hasn’t been the same. Following a slow start to the competition, Franklin has found a lane in Rio in the 200-meter backstroke and freestyle.

The rising sophomore quintet of Kathleen Baker, Amy Bilquist, Katie McLaughlin, Andrew Seliskar and Abbey Weitzeil represent elements of Cal’s most talented recruiting class. With the No. 1 male recruit and four of the top five female recruits, the youth represented the Bears well by qualifying for multiple finals appearances. Although only Bilquist and Weitzeil, who deferred Cal for a year, made the Olympic Team, the adversity that Bilquist, McLaughlin and Seliskar successfully faced bodes well for their future international competitions.

One final first-time Olympian, Cierra Runge, who swam her freshman year at Cal before redshirting this past year to transfer to Wisconsin, will be a part of the 800-meter freestyle relay preliminary heats and will need to help Team USA earn a lane in the finals.

Swimming is perhaps the cruelest sport there is. The limited glory that arises once every four years is reserved for dominant superstars such as Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. But, that opportunity to be etched into history drives thousands of Americans to exert themselves to the brink of their physical and mental capacity.

Recent graduates Rachel Bootsma and Elizabeth Pelton, at one point, appeared to join Franklin as backstroke royalty for Team USA. The duo never really achieved the expected success in international competitions. Following the conclusion of Olympic Trials, the pair retired from competitive swimming. With failure being anything outside the top two, too many exceptionally talented swimmers suffer similar fates as Bootsma and Pelton. For that tiny minority though, Rio awaits.

Chris Zheng covers men’s swim. Contact him at [email protected].