MINNEAPOLIS -- Growing up, Breeja Larson dreamed of being an Olympic gymnast.
“I did cartwheels in the yard every day ‘til I was like 10,” she said.
But swimming? Breeja couldn’t stand losing to her older sister Kyli in a recreational swim program, so she did what disgruntled little sisters are entitled to do: something else.“I did high school swim my freshman year, and then I did volleyball, and then junior year I was in Idaho and they did like four hours [of swimming] a week, so it wasn’t really like true swimming,” she said. “But senior year I knew I had to buckle down and pick a sport, and I knew that swimming was going to take me there, so that’s when I started doing like four hours a day versus four hours a week.”
Five years later, Kyli -- or any other American swimmer -- doesn't hold a chance.
On Friday night, Larson, now a senior at Texas A&M, won her third consecutive NCAA title in the 100-meter backstroke. Her time of 57.23 seconds lowered her previous American record by five hundredths of a second and easily outpaced second place Emily McClellan, a senior from Milwaukee.
“I was expecting a little bit faster,” Larson admitted afterward, “but it gives me more motivation for [Saturday].”
On Saturday, the Mesa, Ariz. native will go for her fourth NCAA individual title, and first in the 200 breast, on the third and final day at the NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships in Minneapolis.
“I’m much more relaxed,” she said after wrapping up Day 2. “The 100 is my baby. The 200 has been a lot of fun this year, and I’m excited to just kind of go in and relax and focus on the race and have fun.”
That’s not to say she’s taking it easy. After finishing second in the 200 breast as a freshman, Larson placed third in the past two seasons. But she’s not making any bold predictions about what to expect in her final individual race as a collegian.
“My best,” she said with a laugh. “I’m just going to go out there and have fun and hopefully have a best time for me.”
Larson’s rise through the swimming ranks has been astronomical. She credits her first true swim coach, Brad Hering of the Mesa Aquatics Club, for showing her as a raw 17-year-old that she could someday be great.
“When he first saw me, he just lit up my world with aspirations to go to the Olympics,” she said. “And so I knew if I worked really hard then anything is possible.”
In 2010, Larson arrived in College Station, Texas, with a lot to learn. She ended her freshman year the next spring with four school records and two runner-up finishes at the NCAA championships. One year later she won her first of three NCAA titles in the 100 breast. And later that summer, she shocked swimming fans by winning the event at the U.S. Olympic Trials, out-touching six-time Olympic medalist Rebecca Soni in the process.
Soni ended up with the better finish in London, winning a silver medal in the 100 breast while Larson finished sixth, but Larson also came home with a fourth-place finish in the 200 breast and a gold medal in the 400 medley relay after swimming for Team USA in a preliminary heat.
For the casual swimming fan, the Olympics was when Larson became a star. For Larson, though, the point when everything began to feel real was earlier that year when she set her first American record.
“I always had the hopes for it, but after that I was like, ‘I can really do this,’” she said, “And I knew I still had a lot of potential.”
For Larson, that last point is key.
She might have gotten a late start, but she doesn’t believe she’s hit her ceiling yet, and she’s more than happy to keep climbing.
“It’s always nice to go best time, and you go to your coach and he says, ‘This is what we need to work on,’” she said in all earnestness. “I’m like, ‘all right!’
“If you still have stuff to work on and you’re going fast, it’s a good thing.”