GRINNELL, Iowa – For most any division III school, it’s a rare treat for an athletic program to have an Olympic Trials qualifier.
So it’s obvious to see why Grinnell’s swimming and diving squad is turning heads by boasting four qualifiers.
In March, not even a full day after completing an incredible performance at the NCAA championships, Michael Brus qualified for the United States Olympic Trials in the 200-meter backstroke. That event is slated for late June.
But that’s just the start of success for the Pioneers. Both Claire Williams and Claire Forrest have qualified for the U.S. Paralympic Trials in Bismarck, N.D., and assistant coach Deidre Freeman is a qualifier for the U.S. Diving Trials in Seattle, Wash. Those events are all in June, as well.
“It’s pretty amazing,” said Grinnell swimming and diving coach Erin Hurley of the collective accomplishments. “It’s really every coach’s dream. At the DIII level it is not very common to have athletes at that level, so we’re very fortunate to have all of these people in the Trials.”
“Having somebody of Michael’s caliber is one thing, but the way he conducts himself is another … he’s vested in the team and very coachable,” added Hurley. “And getting to coach the two Claires has been a wonderful opportunity. They’ve both done very well at Grinnell and I’ve learned tremendously from them.
“As for Deidre, we recruited her in high school but she was offered a scholarship at the University of Iowa and went on to become an All-American there,” Hurley continued. “She has a lot of experience, but also an understanding of what Grinnell is all about.”
Brus, from Davenport, Iowa, has essentially rewritten Grinnell’s record book in his short time with the team. He is a part of eight school records, a two-time Midwest Conference Swimmer of the Year and has qualified for nationals two years in a row. In March, he earned All-America honors in the 100- and 200-yard backstrokes and honorable mention All-America recognition in the 200 freestyle.
Despite his individual success, Brus is the ultimate team player. “I like breaking relay records more than anything,” he said. “That’s because I’m doing it with people and get to share it with them.”
He said a conversation with Hurley is what convinced him to shoot for a spot in the Trials.
“It’s funny because when I was training for nationals, Erin said I had the opportunity to qualify for the Trials,” recalled Brus. “Earlier in the same practice, I remembered how when I was younger my goal was to go to the Trials. It’s odd how that all happened at the same time. I thought if I could make the Trials, it would be cool for the team and school.”
Of course, Brus had to bounce back quickly from a busy NCAA meet. Literally hours after earning All-America honors in the 200-yard backstroke, he had to be set to earn a spot in the Trials in the 200-meter backstroke.
“Twelve hours earlier I had just swam the backstroke at nationals, and that race hurt a lot,” said Brus. “I was thinking ‘I don’t know if tomorrow is going to happen.’ But I woke up the next morning and once the time came, I said ‘let’s do it.’”
By qualifying for the Trials, Brus has had to extend his training. “It’s a big adjustment,” he said. “Last year I swam nationals and then got to focus on just school and have a bit of down time. Now I’m back in the pool swimming harder than I normally would. It’s an adjustment, but worth it in the end. I just want to swim fast at the Trials and enjoy the experience.”
Forrest, from Minneapolis, Minn., is no stranger to the Paralympic Trials after competing in them in 2008.
“It’s a thrill to be going to the Trials again,” she said. “Just the energy there … everybody is so excited and it’s so much fun. I had some of my best career swims there.”
Paralympic swimmers are divided into categories, based upon the nature of an athlete’s physical challenge. Forrest is either a level S5 or S6, depending on the event.
As for events, she’ll certainly have a busy time in Bismarck. “I’m planning on doing the 400 free, 100 free, 50 free and 100 back,” she explained. “The extra training has been challenging, but I’ve enjoyed having Michael and Claire in the pool. To train by yourself is hard, but we make it fun. It definitely makes the time pass by.”
Her goal at the Trials is simple. “I would love to see some lifetime-best swims,” she said. “And I also want to have as much fun as I possibly can.”
Like Forrest, Williams will be a busy swimmer at the Trials. She is registered to compete in the 400 freestyle, 100 backstroke, 100 butterfly, 200 individual medley and 200 butterfly, though she says she may drop one of those.
“I swam the Trials when I was 13, and it’s exciting to be going back knowing what it is,” said Williams, from Urbana, Ill. “Now I have Erin as a coach and I can be tapered and ready to go, plus know what it’s like to swim prelims and finals.”
Williams is no stranger to success, as she is the American record-holder in the 500- and 1000-yard freestyles in the S9 category. “It will be fun to see where I stack up with other S9 swimmers,” said Williams of the Trials. “I want to go faster than my first Trials and make it back to the finals for my events.”
Williams said adjusting to the extra workouts has not been difficult. “I’ve had a lot of practice balancing swimming and school work, so it’s not a big shock,” she said. “I am so incredibly lucky, though, to have Claire and Michael doing this, too. It would be almost impossible to do this by myself for two hours a day.”
Freeman, a Grinnell High School graduate who started coaching the Pioneer divers this past season, saved her best for last while competing at Iowa. “I graduated in 2010 and did a fifth year,” she said. “My diving went beyond where I expected it, as I placed third on one-meter at the Big Ten Championships and second on three-meter. That was exciting since the Big Ten is the toughest league in the country, diving-wise.”
She also competed in the three-meter synchronized diving event, where she and her partner took top honors. “Overall, that was the best meet I ever had,” said Freeman. “I broke two school records held by former Olympians.”
Freeman went on to earn a 10th-place finish in three-meter at the NCAA championships, and took 15th in one-meter diving. “I just missed the finals of three-meter, which was disappointing, but I did well in the consolation round so that was fine,” she said.
As for the Trials, Freeman has qualified in both three-meter diving as well as synchronized diving. The latter event, she noted, is unfamiliar to most.
“There aren’t many teams out there,” she said. “The main reason is because there aren’t many people you can match up with in terms of the same style, same jump, same height and kind of looks like you. I was very fortunate to have somebody at the University of Iowa who fit all that. It’s also very convenient to have her there in terms of training. Hopefully at the Trials we can final.”
The athletes note that having so many Trials qualifiers from Grinnell adds a shot of enthusiasm to their endeavors.
“That is one of the most exciting things about this,” said Brus. “I don’t know how many schools would be able to say they have four athletes going to the Trials. I think it’s pretty special that a small school in the middle of Iowa has these top athletes. It’s an honor to be part of it.”
“That’s personally very exciting to have so many teammates going to these big events,” added Williams. “We already know our program is a strong program, and people on campus know we work hard. It’s a good place to be.”
“For the program, it shows a lot of dedication,” explained Forrest. “I think it shows even though we’re a large team, we are also a strong team.”
Hurley agrees with the swimmers’ assessments.
“This brings our program a lot of exposure,” she said. “The current team is making plans for the summer to support our athletes, and the alums are very enthused about it. As an athlete, or even as a coach, this is one of those things that might be on your bucket list.”