At 16, swimmer Claire Curzan is primed for Olympic Trials breakthrough

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Claire Curzan could be one of the breakout stars at U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, which begin Sunday in Omaha, Nebraska. The 16-year-old enters Olympic Trials as the fastest American woman this year in both the 100m butterfly and 50m freestyle. 


Claire Curzan vs. Dana Vollmer 

When looking at Claire Curzan‘s resume, her sixth-place finish in the women’s 100m butterfly at 2018 U.S. Winter Nationals doesn’t immediately stand out.

But for Curzan, then 14, that race marked a turning point.

“As a kid, you race people your age,” she said. “Then all of a sudden, I was [racing] Dana Vollmer.”

It wasn’t the best swim for Vollmer, a seven-time Olympic medalist and the American record holder, who finished fourth.

As Curzan and her parents, Mark and Tracy, left Greensboro Aquatic Center that night, Mark spotted Vollmer.

Claire Curzan and Dana VollmerMark called out, ignoring his wife and daughter’s please to keep walking.

“I’m not one to be shy to talk to somebody,” he said. “And I said, ‘Do you mind if we get a picture?'”

Vollmer – who made her first Olympic team the same year Curzan was born (2004) – obliged.

“It was really cool,” Curzan says now.

That marked the only time that Vollmer and Curzan went head-to-head in a final. But Vollmer, who retired less than a year later, has kept tabs on Curzan ever since.

“She has so much potential that she might not even know is there,” Vollmer said.

 

The fast ascent of Claire Curzan

Curzan was born June 30, 2004 – “the same birthday as Michael Phelps,” she quickly points out – and grew up in Cary, North Carolina, the middle of three children.

She started swimming at age 3, alongside her older brother, Sean, as part of the neighborhood summer team.

In those early years, Mark and Tracy sensed talent as they watched her beat kids twice her age, but they held off on signing her up for anything more serious.

“We’re kind of the philosophy that you can do as many [sports] as you can, as long as you can,” Tracy said.

Curzan’s other passion was dance. When she finally joined a year-round swim team at age 8, she only practiced two or three times a week so she could go to the studio the other days.

But the balancing act couldn’t last.

“By 11, the ballet teacher was saying, ‘If you don’t come more, you’re gonna get thrown out,'” Tracy laughed.

“It was hard because I did really enjoy dance,” Curzan said. “Kind of a bitter farewell, but I think it was for the best.”

Pause a moment. Up until this point in Curzan’s ascent, nothing is particularly unusual. It’s normal for Olympic swimming hopefuls to get started around age 3 or decide it’s time to specialize in the sport by the time they’re 11.

But it’s easy to forget that for Curzan, it wasn’t that long ago that she was 11 years old.

To put it in perspective: the last time U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials were held, Curzan was a rising seventh grader who had not competed in a meet that wasn’t within driving distance of home.

Five years later, she’s a favorite to make the U.S. team for the Tokyo Olympics in the 100m fly, and she should also contend for a roster spot in the 50m and 100m freestyles.

 

“If there’s anyone that’s going to benefit from this, it’s you.” 

On the morning of March 24, 2020, Curzan had just finished a swim at Triangle Aquatics Center in Cary when her coach, Bruce Marchionda, broke the news that the Olympics were postponed.

Curzan, exhausted from the training session, says her first reaction was, “Could you have told me two hours earlier?”

Marchionda saw it as an opportunity, telling Curzan, “If there’s anybody that’s going to benefit from this, it’s you.”

But as the COVID-19 pandemic intensified, it wasn’t exactly easy to take advantage of the extra time.

Triangle Aquatics Center closed for six weeks. Curzan was out of the water, apart from occasionally splashing around in a wetsuit in a neighbor’s freezing outdoor pool.

But Mark and Tracy believe the break provided a reset and allowed Curzan to challenge longstanding notions about her sport.

In swimming, there’s a belief that if you aren’t in the pool enough times each week, “You’re going to become a blob and digress by six months,” Mark said.

But is that true for all swimmers?

“I think what COVID taught us is, [doing doubles] isn’t necessarily better for everybody,” Tracy said. “The old theory of the more miles you put in, the better it is… for her, trying different things and becoming stronger in different ways was probably beneficial.”

Like thrice weekly runs around the neighborhood with Tracy, who played soccer and lacrosse at Harvard in the early 1990s.

“When I run with her, I can barely breathe,” Tracy joked. “I yell from the back, ‘You’re gonna get caught! Hurry up!'”

Curzan also incorporated weight training sessions three times a week.

The result? At the U.S. Open last November, she clocked 56.61 in the 100m fly, which not only shattered the 15-16 U.S. age group record, but also made her the third fastest U.S. woman ever (behind Vollmer and Rio Olympian Kelsi Dahlia).

Not to mention: she did it with a hole in her suit.

“That’s probably why she went so fast in that opening split, faster than world record pace,” Tracy said. “She was so stressed out that she had put a hole in the brand new $550 suit.”

Vollmer, watching from afar, posted about the performance on her Instagram story.

“I got a screenshot,” Curzan said. “It was so cool.”

 

The future of the American record in women’s 100m butterfly

Vollmer first broke the women’s 100m fly American record in 2009, and then lowered her own mark five more times. Her current record – 55.98 – has stood for almost nine years.

In April, Curzan went 56.20 to become the second fastest American woman in history.

Can she become the fastest?

“While I am incredibly proud that my American record has stood for so long, it’s time,” Vollmer said. “I hope my American record gets broken, and I hope that it gets broken by Claire.”

So what makes Curzan such a strong swimmer, even at just 16 years old?

“She has one of the best underwater kicks,” Marchionda pauses for a moment before adding, “in the world.”

Curzan also tweaked her approach to the 100m fly, her best event. Marchionda said the aim is to take 39 strokes (19 on the first length of the pool, 20 on the second length).

“If you look at all of the best butterfliers in the world, they are maybe one stroke more than that,” he said. “The idea is to be very efficient at what you’re doing. She has the ability not just to move a lot of water, but she has learned – through drills and skills and natural ability – to be able to move a lot of water really fast.”

 

Curzan’s plan for U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials

Curzan is entered in five events at Olympic Swimming Trials that start Sunday (100 fly, 100m back, 200 back, 50 free, and 100m free), but it’s possible she’ll scratch one or both backstrokes.

Despite her recent success, she said it “still feels like a faraway dream to make the team.”

Vollmer, who was also 16 when she made her first Olympic team, is excited to see what the future holds.

“Even when I set this American record – the world record at the time – I knew I was just scratching the tip of the iceberg of where butterfly is going to get to,” she said. “Claire is just starting and I can’t wait to see where this takes her.”

 

The full TV and streaming schedule for U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials can be found here.

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Kaillie Humphries elevates another fresh U.S. face to podium status in two-woman bobsled World Cup

Kaillie Humphries of USA, Kaysha Love of USA in action at the 2 women's bobsleigh during Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
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PARK CITY, UTAH – Kaillie Humphries extended her podium streak on Saturday at the IBSF World Cup, where she and U.S. push athlete Jasmine Jones finished third in the two-woman bobsled.

The third-place finish in Park City marked the sixth podium for Humphries at the Park City track, which hosted the 2002 Olympics, and was Jones’ career-first World Cup podium in just her second World Cup start.

“This is our first race together, so really excited about that,” said the 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships titles. She earned her 29th career World Cup win on Friday in Park City in the women’s monobob.

“Definitely a work in progress. … The runs weren’t perfect, but I’m really happy with our starts, happy with our drives minus a few little mistakes. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll look to grow from here.”

Humphries and Jones finished with a combined, two-run time of 1:37.69, 0.32 behind winners Kim Kalicki and brakewoman Leonie Fiebig of Germany at 1:37.37. Fellow Germans Laura Nolte and Lena Neunecker were second at 0.23 back.

Kalicki and Fiebig broke a 16-year-old track record with their first run, laying down a time of 48.60 seconds and besting the time set by Americans Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming – the 2006 Olympic silver medalists – in December 2006 (48.73). It also marked the second straight victory for Kalicki, who’s won five career World Cup titles including last week’s two-woman bobsled race in Whistler, Canada.

“I was hoping Kaillie would get [the record],” said Rohbock, who is now a U.S. team coach and was on hand to see her record fall. “That first run there, she had that little skid in the bottom, so that didn’t help, but Kailee’s always putting up a great performance. And Jasmine, another great brakewoman, so we’re really lucky that we have that depth.”

For Team USA, it marked the second straight week that a fresh face earned her first podium finish while competing with Humphries. Last week in Whistler, push athlete Emily Renna and Humphries placed third in Renna’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP COVERAGE: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“Being able to race with her was really special,” said the 29-year-old Renna, who was a college track athlete at University of Rhode Island. “It’s really nice to be around seasoned veterans. It definitely makes you feel better in the back sled with you when you’ve got a good pilot who knows the track.”

Renna finished in eighth place in Park City with 12-year U.S. team veteran and pilot Nicole Vogt (1:39.04). Vogt partnered with Jones in her first World Cup last week where they finished seventh in Whistler, 1.33 seconds behind winners Kalicki and German teammate Anabel Galander.

“To have an opportunity to be with Kaillie in my World Cup debut – it’s exciting,” said the 26-year-old Jones, who was a collegiate track and field athlete at Eastern Michigan. “I just feel like I have so much more in the tank to give, and I’m just hungry for it.”

Jones is particularly gratified with her performance after returning full-time to bobsled less than 18 months ago following the birth of her daughter, Jade Quinn Jones, in February 2021. The Greensburg, Pa., native returned to training just five months postpartum, having sat out the 2020-21 season. She competed on the North American Cup last year, finishing the season with a win (the third NA Cup title of her career) and a third place in Lake Placid.

“I’m thankful,” said Jones. “Opportunity is the main thing, and I just feel blessed to have my first World Cup podium. I’m screaming on the inside. I may not show it, but I am jumping for joy because I’m just that excited and happy to have this accomplishment.”

She admits, however, it’s not always easy to compete balance a full-time competitive career with being a mom.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle being away from my daughter,” said Jones, whose mom takes care of Jade while she travels. “I try to get my facetimes in every night and just know that when I’m pushing, I’m doing it for her. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll have her around on the sidelines cheering me on, and that’s my main motivation – that this is for her.”

The BMW IBSF World Cup continues its North American swing Dec. 16-18 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kaillie Humphries faces IVF journey head on — and collects monobob World Cup win along the way

Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries of Team United States celebrates during the Women's Monobob.
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PARK CITY, UTAH — Kaillie Humphries knew the quest to start a family would impact her 2022-23 season, but it’s certainly not slowing down Team USA’s reigning monobob Olympic gold medalist, who captured her first World Cup title in the discipline on Friday.

The 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic golds (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships, earned her 29th career World Cup win and her third victory on the Park City track, where she won the two-woman bobsled competitions in 2012 and 2016. Competing in Utah – as well as North American World Cup stops in Whistler last week and in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 17-18 – is one of the reasons that Humphries pushed pause on her journey to motherhood.

“I’m excited,” Humphries said following the win, marking her second straight podium in monobob following a third-place finish last week in Whistler. “I was excited for this year before it started. It’s part and parcel of why my husband and I delayed the IVF process and starting a family this season. To be able to be back in North America and have the first half of the season here – it’s been a long time since we’ve had that, so I wanted to be able to compete and it feels awesome.”

That’s not to say the leadup to this season has been without its share of hiccups. In fact, Humphries admits that following the Beijing Olympics, she had hoped to get pregnant immediately, but she and husband Travis Armbruster had to pivot when a diagnosis of stage 4 endometriosis made it clear that in vitro fertilization would be the best path for pregnancy.

“Right after the Olympics, I was like, ‘We’re going to get pregnant; it’s gonna be all good,’” she said. “I thought, my body has always performed, and it wasn’t going to be an issue. Fast forward to I find out we have to do IVF. We do the first egg retrieval, and it doesn’t go as well as I had hoped — which anybody that’s done this process knows, you can’t control any aspect of it. And so having to do a second round of egg retrieval, …it pushed everything back.”

What’s more, it brought Humphries’ training to a standstill at times, when she would have to limit all physical activity during the three-week period surrounding the egg-retrieval process.

“It impacted my training coming into this year a lot,” she says, “but I also think it definitely reset my hormones, which turns out I needed. I don’t think was a bad thing. I knew coming into this year, I wasn’t going to be in the same shape as I have been in the past, and I had to make peace with that. I know that each and every race I’m racing myself into shape, and each race is a preparation for January’s World Championships.”

Humphries also chose to share her IVF journey publicly, and she’s documented every step of the way, believing that her story makes it less scary not just for her but also for other women and female athletes who might be facing the same thing.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“My husband and I weren’t sure that we wanted to share it at first,” she admits. “But I felt it was important just to showcase this. I have nothing to hide. And as much as there are parts of me certain days when I think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ At the end of the day, I know I’m not alone in this.

“It’s important, I do have a voice, and I want other people to know, as an Olympic gold medalist, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Infertility exists in the female body, and it’s important that I talk about it in my journey and hopefully that’s inspired other people.”

She says she’s received an outpouring of support, which has been particularly gratifying as she continues to put a painful breakup with Team Canada in the rearview mirror. Humphries, who was born in Calgary, competed for Canada for 16 years, winning three Olympic medals including a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. But the relationship came to an abrupt end later just five months after the 2018 Games, after Humphries alleged emotional and mental harassment by a former coach.

Winning a gold medal in Beijing just two months after her U.S. citizenship was finalized proved to be turning point for Humphries, who commemorated the milestone with two new tattoos. She first added the date of her win – Feb. 14, 2022 – to the back of her left hand and a larger rose and skull illustration to the back of her right knee and calf, all of which commemorate her triumph over that darker period.

“The skull represents a rebirth and a growth, overcoming challenges and/or obstacles and turning something negative into something positive,” explains Humphries, who says she chose the rose because it’s the national flower of the U.S. as well as a symbol of love won or lost. She notes that she has “an actual Olympic one” planned for August 2024, which is when her favorite tattoo artist is next available.

Humphries has also found the silver lining in her IVF journey, as the competition season has been a welcome break from some of the self-imposed pressure.

“By pushing pause for four or five months and competing, it allowed me mentally to know that we can go into all of next summer and all winter focusing on just doing the actual embryo transfers and having a good pregnancy,” she says. “I don’t feel stressed to try and get pregnant right away. I felt like I was becoming competitive with myself, wondering why isn’t this working? Why can’t I do this? I tried to control too many things, and I started to get really frustrated. Mentally, it was hard. So, by pushing pause, going back to what I know — which is the sport, which is what I love – it’s allowed me to control a little bit of my future.”

Humphries’ season continues Saturday as the IBSF World Cup from Park City concludes with the two-woman bobsleigh.