Racing for a smile: Abbey Weitzeil, back on top

Amanda Ramirez/Senior Staff

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A
lways find your smile.

Inked on her skin, her mantra rang true this year.

In 2016, Abbey Weitzeil won gold and silver relay medals at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, cementing her status as one of America’s top swimming prospects. For the next two years, she would struggle to replicate that same form — until this season.

The resurgent Cal junior established herself as the nation’s top freestyle sprinter as she lowered her own American record in her signature event, setting the national stage ablaze with power, grace, speed — and of course, no shortage of smiles.

 

A smile flows across her face when she thinks about how her wild journey in the pool started.

“I started (swimming) when I was 12,” Abbey says. “I didn’t like it at first.”

Today, Olympic swimmers are starting their careers earlier than ever — it’s not uncommon to hear of world-class swimmers beginning training at 6 or 7. In her early meets, Abbey not only held her own against those with years more experience but often found her competitors in the rearview mirror.

Abbey’s two sisters had swimming experience in high school, but it was nothing like this — for the Weitzeil family, the national spotlight was completely foreign.

“It was all new to us,” says Michelle Weitzeil, Abbey’s mother. “When she was doing exciting things in the pool, the coaches had to tell us what that meant.”

In fact, news of the magnitude of Abbey’s accomplishments took her family by surprise.

“I was asking about a qualifying time for a meet, and her coach said something to the effect of a ‘trials cut.’ At that point, the Olympic trials weren’t even on my radar,” Michelle says. “Then (the coach) said, ‘No, really — Olympic trials.’ ”

Even if there was an outside possibility of Abbey earning a spot on Team USA, her mother knew she couldn’t get carried away.

“We had to stay grounded and realistic,” Michelle adds. “We just kept supporting what she was doing, getting her where she was going and feeding her.”

At just 15 years old, Abbey swam at the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials against America’s best, some of whom were eight or more years her senior.

Unfortunately, she would need to wait until 2016 to represent the United States in the Olympics. Determined to qualify, she would train consistently for the next four years— even deferring her admission to Cal to prepare for the games.

“Day in and day out, it was swimming, swimming, swimming,” Abbey says.

In 2014, she set the fastest recorded time in the 100-yard freestyle, besting future USA teammate Simone Manuel’s American record by a third of a second. Although Manuel would regain her record during her tenure at Stanford, the swim gave Abbey a true sense of her capabilities.

“Once I broke my first American record, my second — my goal was to make the Olympic team, and I knew I had a shot.”

 

She beams as she recounts the blur that was the 2016 Olympic Games.

Abbey’s dedication during the two years leading up to the games yielded the results she needed. She came into the 2016 trials with authority, this time winning both the 50-meter freestyle and the 100-meter freestyle en route to earning her spot on the world’s biggest stage.

“Actually making the team never really sunk in until the Olympics were over,” Abbey says, laughing. “Wow, I actually swam there.”

For the Weitzeils, seeing Abbey swim in Rio de Janeiro was indescribable.

“Tears,” Michelle says. “When someone who’s worked that hard (has their work) pay off, it’s heart-wrenching in the best way possible.”

At the 2016 Olympics, Abbey was part of the silver-medal-winning 400-meter freestyle relay and took home a gold medal after swimming in the prelims of the USA’s first-place 400-meter medley relay.

But after coming home from Rio and donning the Cal cap as a highly rated prospect, her career took an unexpected downturn. For the next two years, she would try and regain the speed that had, inexplicably, waned after her feats for the national team.

“Honestly, it was hard, especially coming off of 2016 when I had a really great year (to) struggling a lot with my swimming,” Abbey says. “It was hard — but this is the way I look at it; everyone goes through ups and downs in swimming, and you’re never going to stay up top.”

As she settled into her new life as a student-athlete at Cal, her times began to improve. A fifth-place finish in the 50 freestyle at the 2017 NCAA championships led to a fourth-place finish at the 2018 NCAAs. When the 2019 season started, Abbey approached it with the same drive that propelled her to the Olympics three years ago.

“I was not going to let myself have another year like the past two years,” she says. “I’ve learned to trust in the training and had been training the best I’d trained in a long time.”

This year, Abbey set the American record in the 50-yard freestyle with a time of 21.02, taking first place in the event at the NCAA championships. Her performances as a part of Cal’s dominant relay teams made this season her best as a Golden Bear.

 

Her eyes light up when she talks about what drives her.

“I love racing, and I love winning,” Abbey says. “I’m a very competitive person. … I love racing for team USA and for Cal.”

When she makes herself proud, her family feels the same.

“She’s been strong-willed since day one,” her mother says. “Any time she sets her mind to something, she achieves it

To Abbey, seeing the countless hours in training pay off in a race is a source of unparalleled satisfaction.

“You work day in and day out for years just to shave off less than a second. To actually reach that and make it happen is honestly the most incredible feeling,” she says.

In a world where athletes are taught to “act like they’ve been there before,” Abbey’s approach stands out. She takes on each race with vigor and joy that lend themselves to her hand getting to the wall that much faster.

“It’s really cheesy, but I stay true to (the words on my tattoo). Always do what makes you happy in the moment,” Abbey says.

Although Abbey’s races often take less than a minute, swimming is anything but spontaneous. The years she’s trained to build the physical and mental strength of an Olympian are all rightly spent for the big smile that comes afterward.

Chanun Ong covers women’s swimming and diving. Contact him at [email protected].