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