July 6, 2009
To say Katy Freeman's swift rise among the elite breaststrokers in the United States and world over the past year has been largely unexpected would be an understatement.
Funny enough, her quick ascension caught no one by surprise more than Freeman. Her realization came to a head this spring at the Santa Clara (Calif.) Invitational, when she finished second to Australian world champion and Olympic silver medalist Leisel Jones in the 200 breaststroke - besting a strong field in the process.
"Those were my fastest times ever unrested," said Freeman, who completed her senior campaign at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) this year with an eighth-place finish in the 200 breast at NCAA Championships. "I had raced against Rebecca (Soni) several times before, but I had never raced against Leisel. That was a really fun race for me, and it opened my eyes to possibilities. A year earlier, I would have never believed I could compete against these same athletes. Before the final (in Santa Clara), I was just excited to get into the heat, let alone finish second."
Next week in Serbia, Freeman will test her continued advancement against some of the world's best collegiate swimmers in her first international competition - the World University Games.
While she's excited to see where she stands and make sure her finish and time in Santa Clara weren't a fluke, she's also anxious and very excited. She's confident but far from cocky about her opportunities.
"I really feel like I'm going into it blind because, aside from my U.S. teammates, I know almost nothing about the competition," Freeman said. "As I packed this week for the trip, I actually started thinking about the meet and feeling nervous. But because there was a time very recently when I never thought I'd ever be competing at a meet like this, I'm going in with limited stress and reasonable expectations."
Freeman didn't originally excel at straight-line swimming. She got her feet wet, literally and figuratively, as a synchronized swimmer and competed individually and as a team from the age of 6 while continuing to do some rec swimming as she could. It was in high school that she decided to give up synchronized competition and training to focus solely on competitive swimming.
Originally a backstroker, Freeman took up the breaststroke as a teenager and quickly found her niche. At UCSB, she trains with the distance freestyle swimmers rather than the sprint breaststrokers because her style and tempo favor the longer distance breaststroke event.
"I have been working on my sprinting, and I have dropped time, but I know my strengths and realize that the 200 is my best event," said Freeman, who will compete in all three (50, 100 and 200) breaststroke events at WUGs. "I tend to be a strong back-end swimmer, so I am a slow starter but then I come on in the third 50 until the end."
Just as she did in Santa Clara, where she trailed throughout the race before turning on the jets to edge the field in the final 50 meters, Freeman knows in order to be successful in Serbia, she needs to swim her own race at the pace that works best for her.
"If I swim the race that works for me and don't let fast starters detour me from my plan, I should be competitive," said Freeman, who will spend the next year training before starting her post-collegiate life teaching linguistics for Teach for America in New Orleans. "Part of my continued success has been that I'm starting to finally believe and accept that I belong among the best in the world. Sometimes I still feel like a rookie, but with each meet and experience, I feel more and more legitimate. I've put in the work, and now I am able to reap the benefits, and I'm enjoying swimming more now than ever."