Shortly after returning from the 2004 Summer Olympics with six gold medals and instant fame, Michael Phelps rolled into Spartanburg, S.C., to hold a swimming clinic.
On hand was 11-year-old Chrissy Oberg. She had competed in summer leagues since she was five but she ratcheted up the competitiveness at nine when she began swimming all year around, five to six days a week.
Now, treading in the pool, listening to her favorite athlete give pointers, Oberg began to think big.
“To meet him and see the people you watch on TV are real people and you realize, ‘Hey, if I work really hard maybe I can be like that too,’ ” she said. “Just seeing him lit the fire and made me want to swim faster.”
Flash forward eight years, Oberg, now 19, and Phelps are set to once again cross paths. The Vanderbilt sophomore heads to Omaha, Neb., on Wednesday to compete in the 200-meter backstroke on June 30 in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
Every swimmer who represents the U.S. has to attend the trials and finish in the top two in their events —adding up to 26 men and 26 women who will head to London next month for the Olympics. That includes Phelps — the 16-time Olympic medalist who inspired millions of Americans, including Oberg.
“It was just so cool meeting the guy that would become the best swimmer in the world and now I’m going to go swim at Olympic trials with him,” Oberg said. “It’s crazy to think about the difference between eight years ago and now. It’s just crazy.”
Achieving this milestone wasn’t too far-fetched for Oberg. Swimming World Magazine ranked her as a five-star recruit and the top prep swimmer in South Carolina.
She eyed a trip to the Olympic trials all season at Vanderbilt but finally punched her ticket to the trials last month when she swam a personal-best time of 2:17.46 during her meet with her club team, Y-Spartaquatics. It was enough to slide under the qualifying time of 2:17.99. In doing so, she became the first Vanderbilt swimmer to qualify for the trials since the program was resurrected in 2006.
“It wasn’t a surprise at all,” Vanderbilt coach Jeremy Organ said. “She is such a hard worker. When you see her there is nothing that would make you go, ‘Whoa.’ But she is an extremely hard worker who is focused on our goals. She goes out and gets it. Those things, along with the natural ability, obviously have to be there to get to this level.”
Oberg will be one of nearly 200 swimmers competing for a spot in the 200-meter backstroke. It is easily the biggest meet of her career, and she imagines only the USA Swimming nationals meet and the SEC championship this past season come close. The latter provided quite a learning lesson.
As she prepared to jump off the starting block in the 200-meter backstroke, Oberg made, well, a freshman mistake. She moved her head before the start and was disqualified.
“That was not a good moment for me,” she said laughing. “I definitely don’t want to do that again. At SECs I was so wound up. I was very nervous. I had never been to that kind of meet before were it was just crazy. A few weeks ago, when I got my [trial] cut, I was relaxed. I knew I was ready. I think that was probably the difference. When you know you’re ready to swim, you’re not nervous. You’re just ready to go. That’s what I’m hoping to do this next weekend.”
For the record, Oberg hasn’t been disqualified since.
When she qualified last month that was her last chance to meet the standard. However, she told herself before the race if she didn’t qualify, “it wouldn’t be the end of the world.”
She takes that same approach into this weekend. There is no pressure. She figures she has to swim at least a 2:10 to make the team. So instead she plans to soak in the moment and look to her idol.
“It is definitely very cool to look across the pool and see Michael Phelps listening to his iPod, getting ready to swim just like everyone else,” she said. “You just kind of realize all swimmers kind of doing the same thing to get ready. They all get nervous. They all train really hard. Honestly, this is just a dream come true to get to go to the biggest meet in the country and compete against the best swimmers in the world. It’s just amazing.”