June 24, 2008
With one lap to go in the 200-meter backstroke and a berth in the upcoming Olympic swim trials on the line, Lindsey Hagens spied the JumboTron timer ticking down and realized it was do or die time.
"I remember thinking it was going to be close," said the 18-year-old Westborough resident, who was aiming to make the cut at the Mutual of Omaha Swimvitational at the Qwest Center in Omaha, Neb., earlier this month.
"I didn’t want to watch the Olympic trials on TV. I told myself, if you don’t do it now, another four years will go by ... and you’ll wish you had been tougher in this race."
Urging herself to "kick as hard as you can," Hagens touched the wall and looked for her time: 2:17.95, .04 seconds under the qualifying time for the event.
"I threw my hands in the air - I was so happy," she said.
By now Hagens is used to sudden bursts of ability. A year ago, the prospect of a spot on the U.S. Olympic swim team seemed far-fetched by her own admission.
"Last summer, it wasn’t even on my radar," she said.
Not that Hagens was a slouch in the pool. A senior captain on Gardner High School’s swim team this past season, she led the program to its 15th straight Division 1 state championship in February with victories in the 200 individual medley, 100 breaststroke, 200 freestyle relay and 200 medley relay. She will join Villanova University’s swim team in the fall.
Hagens’ swimming career really took off her freshman year, however, when she tried out for the Greenwood Memorial Swim Club in Gardner. That opportunity led to some sacrifices by her family - her dad, Matthew, drove her to Gardner at 3:30 in the morning most days and picked her up at 7 p.m. - as well as some trials early on for Hagens, who said she got sick during her first year.
"That was my body’s reaction, going, ’Whoa, what are you doing here,’ " she said.
By her junior year, Hagens was burned out from the constant travel between Westborough, where she was still living with her family, and Gardner, where she went to school and swam. Around that time one of her Greenwood teammates offered her a part-time home at her family’s house in Ashburnham, which allowed Hagens to stay close to Gardner on weekdays and return home on the weekend.
"I was able to rest, do my homework and go to bed earlier," she said.
She was also able to devote herself to swimming, hitting the weight room several times a week and working with her coach at Gardner High, Don Lemieux, to lower her times.
"I got faster each year," Hagens said. "Each year I was getting big dips in my times."
At the Junior Nationals competition in Orlando, Fla., in March, Hagens still wasn’t sure she was Olympic trials material until she got a surprising challenge from Lemieux while prepping for her heat in the 200 backstroke.
"I was passing by and he said, ’Let’s make that trial cut,’ " she said. "I said, ’Yeah - OK.’ "
But Hagens became a believer after clocking her best time yet in the race, missing the trial time by .2 seconds.
Three months later she was in Omaha, at the starting block and ready to culminate her dramatic surge.
"I was so ready and so full of adrenaline that I was almost blacking out," Hagens said. "I was so ready to go."
Little more than two minutes later she had stamped her return ticket to Omaha, where the Olympic trials will take place from June 29 to July 6.
She will be competing with top-flight talent at the trials, including Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff, arguably the best male and female swimmers in America, she said. But Hagens admitted the accomplishment has not sunk in yet.
"It doesn’t hit me as very big," she said. "For me, it’s, "I made that cut, now I want to make some more.’ "
But she is also excited to go against the country’s very best. "Being able to race in a venue like that is going to be amazing," Hagens said. "It’s exciting because it’s something new - it’s the next level."
She will get her chance on July 4, when she attempts to pass the preliminaries to get to the semifinals and finals (the top two swimmers from each event will join the U.S. Olympic team).
"I don’t set expectations for myself - I don’t like to set limits," Hagens said. "I just want to keep going because I like it.
"There are those days when I could just sit on the couch, but I’m somebody who, if I don’t work out for days, I get stir crazy. You just have to have fun with it. You won’t get better at something you don’t like doing."