US Olympic Trials, Omaha, Day 6, finals:
Women's 200m breaststroke
The defence of the Olympic crown is on: Rebecca Soni, coached by Dave Salo at Trojan, extended her lead at the helm of the world rankings in 2:21.13 with a dominant victory in the third best textile time of her career. Only she and Leisel Jones, Australian former world record holder and champion, have ever raced inside 2:22.
The second berth for the US in London went to Micah Lawrence, her 2:23.03 a lifetime best delivered at the right moment. Lawrence arrived in Olympic year with a best time of 2:27.06 and had chipped that down to 2:24.12 by the time she got to the final today.
Down the first 50m, 100m winner Breeja Larson got to the wall first in 32.37, Soni, pretty in her pink arena, fourth in 32.89. At the half-way turn, Soni had taken the lead on 1:08.38, Larson faded back to 6th, Lawrence a touch behind Soni under 1:09.
The third lap settled the argument, Soni extending her lead and turning into the homeward lap in 1:44.91, to 1:45.46 for Lawrence. Soni simply got stronger as the race went on, powering to a 2:21.13 victory that puts a couple of seconds between her and the rest of the world heading to London, Jones not a player in the 200m this time round.
The bronze went to Andrea Kropp in 2:24.82, while those locked out of selection included 2004 Olympic champion on the comeback trail Amanda Beard, on 2:26.42. A mother who swims, Beard said she would now go and try for another baby, though she would not say whether she would retire.
Deckside after receiving her medal, Soni said: "It just felt great. I heard of you guys screaming." Of London 2012, she said: "I don't have time standard in kind i just want to bring home a medal for Team USA."
Soni's splits compared show a change in last lap speed 2011 to 2012:
The world record from 2009: 32.03; 1:07.28; 1:43.42; 2:20.12 Annamay Pierse (CAN) - non-textile
Soni was born in Freehold, New Jersey, on March 18, 1987. She grew up in Plainsboro Township, New Jersey, and attended West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North. Her parents Peter, in real estate, and Kinga, a nurse, left Europe for a new life in the early 1980s and ended up in the States. They raised their American-born daughters, Rita the eldest, to speak fluent Hungarian and to enjoy and appreciate the culture and cooking of the land from whence they had travelled.
Used to drawing the life out of her opponents over 200m in the pool since lifting the Olympic crown in Beijing four years ago, Soni is of Transylvanian descent on the Hungarian side of a geo-social split with Romania along the years. Her family hails from a region in the central part of Romania (later to become part of the Kingdom of Hungary and then in 1945 handed back) bound on the east and south by the Carpathian mountain range. It was once the nucleus of the Kingdom of Dacia (82 BC-106 AD). In 106 AD the Roman Empire conquered the region, the visitors withdrawing in AD 271 to give way to tribes of various kinds, like the Carpi, Visigoths, Huns, Gepids, Avars and Bulgars.
You could see a touch of all that in her down the third length.
Soni, who at the University of Southern California majored in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, says her roots "are a big part of me. Hungary is a part of me too. I've been in California for four or five years now and I'm an individual. I wouldn't say that I was the typical Californian girl [laughter] but I definitely enjoy being there."
She ended up going to the pool because Rita was there. "She always loved the water and as a birthday present around 10 my parents got her a membership of a club a couple of years later I followed because the club was quite a long way from home and so we have to travel backwards and forwards every day and it made sense for us both to be there and we loved it. I don't know why we were so dedicated at such a young age but we were. I competed at my first nationals at 13, which considering I started just three years earlier was pretty good."
Age group nationals? "No, national nationals. I didn't do so well. I think it was the 100 breaststroke and I placed pretty low. It was just a first experience. That kind of gave me a reason to train harder. I didn't really think I was anything special but I did think making nationals was a big step."
In the pool at the same time was Amanda Beard heading to her second Olympic Games in Sydney. Soni can't remember her from 12 years ago. "I never really looked at swimming and studied swimming and swimmers. I just kind of went through it myself, a meet at a time. I don't even think I watched it on the Olympics at that stage." By 2004, she watched the highlights. By 2008, she was highlight.
Invited to destroy Dave Salo's reputation as a maverick by explaining what the difference was between coach Mark Schubert, who did the foundation work with Soni, and the Trojan coach who took her to the Olympic podium and beyond, she said: "Well, it is similar to the way you describe it in some ways [cue giggle]. Schubert was more distance orientated and that was similar to my background in school and high school teams. I did great with Schubert but then a year into it he had to leave and Dave came in. At first, for me, it was really difficult. I had never been exposed to that kind of training before. In a way you were joking in your question but we do do a lot of 25s and we do alot of short and intense swims . The first year it was just so new for me that I was kind of like thinking 'how can I swim fast when I'm just playing around in practice. Not that that is what we do but it seemed like it at the time following on from lots of yardage. It took about a year for me to let go and trust him, and trust in his practices and that change was good."
During her development years, she notes, "The NCAAs was incredibly important. Even if it's not the Olympics. Someone once came back from the Olympics and said to me 'It was cool but it was just another meet'. That kind of stuck in my head for four years. It was a good kind of way to relax when you got there. It helped keep things here (she makes a motion with her hands indicating calmness).
Asked who gave her that fine advice, Soni said: "It was Caroline Bruce (9th 200m breaststroke, Athens 2004), a good friend of mine. It was great to have that four years out because it was what I was thinking about the Games for four years. It wasn't like this massive thing. What helped too was that the NCAAs was a great experience that in some ways was a lot more intense than the Olympics, just because it's so compact and there's a wide variety of great swimmers. It was also the culmination of one year of build up. It was like 'this is the end point'. And that's the kind of feeling you get at the Olympics too. It's like now or never - all eyes on me at this point. NCAAs was a great hit out."
Spare time is spent with boyfriend Ricky Berens, reading and cooking - Hungarian dishes in the mix. Down the line would the things she learned through swimming serve her well in life? "Definitely. When you talk to people who started swimming at a young age, swimming has taught them just about everything they know. We would not be who we are without the sport and the practising and dedication and everything we've been through. It teaches you about your life."