By Devin Golden
Taylor Dale has competed and won at big swim meets before. Being a three-time state champion is enough proof.
But next week the Dalton High senior faces his biggest test yet.
Dale, 17, will fly to Omaha, Neb., on Monday. The next morning, he’ll be in the pool for the 100-meter backstroke competition at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
At the Georgia High School Association’s Class A-4A meet in February, Dale won individual state titles for the Catamounts in the 100-yard backstroke and 100-yard butterfly while teaming up with Wil Cushman, Omar Farag and Pierson Scarborough to take the 200-yard medley relay championship.
The wins came in the same Georgia Tech Aquatic Center where, two months earlier, he clocked a time of 57.36 seconds in the 100-meter backstroke during preliminary competition at the U.S. Winter Nationals. That swim was under the Olympic Trials cut of 57.59 and booked his trip to Omaha.
In Nebraska, Dale will be tasked with going against some 200 swimmers from across the country. His first-round time will have to be one of the 16 fastest to advance to the second round of swimming on Tuesday night, and then in the top eight to make it to Wednesday’s final round. A top-two finish there would mean an even longer flight next month — to London for the 2012 Summer Games.
Earlier this week, Dale said he was a bit nervous about what’s about to happen.
But he knows it’s an opportunity few swimmers ever have.
“I’m just looking forward to the experience and seeing where I need to be,” said Dale, who also nearly qualified in the 100 butterfly, his second-best stroke. “There’s going to be tons of competition. There will be returning Olympians trying to make it, people my age and people in college.”
Since his qualifying swim in December, he has turned in a 57.20 for the 100 backstroke, a personal best he recorded in the Columbus Grand Prix at Ohio State University.
He knows he’ll have to be much better to still be swimming Wednesday.
“To make the top 16, me and my dad looked at it, I might have to go 55 low, 54 high,” Dale said. “So almost like a two-second drop.”
He knows that’s a stretch, but a new Dale record isn’t.
“I’m going to try and do a personal best, like a 56-something,” said Dale, who also swims for the summer league Dalton Dolphins and year-round Carpet Capital Aquatics Club Makos, a USA Swimming program.
Charles Todd, Dale’s high school and club coach, is going to Omaha, too, to watch Dale and join the athlete’s parents, Gary and Nancy.
The coach’s reasonable expectation for Dale is to be one of the better competitors who is 18 or younger. Dale didn’t turn 17 until a few days before the end of 2011.
“And if something better than that happens,” Todd said, “then that’s just going to be icing on the cake.”
Colleges will be drooling over Dale starting July 1, Todd said, and in four years he will have another crack at making the Olympics. So all is not lost if he falls short in this run.
“He’ll be a junior in college at that point and will benefit from all the year-round training,” Todd said.
But Dale knows he can improve just by being in Omaha. While he knows all about high-stakes meets, he has more he’d like to learn.
“I’ve been to two junior nationals and a nationals meet,” Dale said. “I was nervous at the first junior nationals meet, but then I learned what to expect and it helped my nerves.
“I just try to stay relaxed and try to joke around and be loose and everything, but still try to keep my edge and stay focused and size up the competition, maybe see what they’re doing and things I can use to make myself better.”
Dale should be helped by having someone present like Todd, who has been around the Olympic Trials block a time or two.
“I’ve had a couple of kids qualify before and even medal, so this is not my first rodeo,” Todd said. “It’s always exciting. There’s always nerves.
“This is the biggest meet outside of the Olympics in the world. It’s probably faster than the World Championships top to bottom. There’s some fast cats in the United States. So he’s going to get out there and compete with them.”