LONDON — Four years ago in Beijing, she was the swimming team’s kid sister, her head on a swivel for three weeks. Elizabeth Beisel was a 15-year-old newbie from the country’s smallest state tossed into the planet’s biggest pool. “A deer in the headlights,” recalled the US women’s coach, Teri McKeever.
This time Beisel comes to the Games as a gold-medal favorite, the woman to beat in Saturday’s 400-meter individual medley, which no US woman has won since Janet Evans in 1988.
“Now that I have had that experience being the world champion, it’s weird having the dart on my back because normally I’m never in that position,” said the native of Saunderstown, R.I., who represents the Bluefish Swim Club in Attleboro. “But I think at this time I can handle it better.”
Two years of competing for the University of Florida’s high-octane program and training with Olympic teammates like Ryan Lochte have made Beisel decidedly more comfortable living and working in the fast lane. “Swimming with Ryan every day and Conor Dwyer and Peter Vanderkaay and all the Olympians from other countries, it’s ridiculous because you always have someone to race,” she said. “There is always something great going on in practice, and if I’m having a bad day somebody will pick me up and tell me that it will be OK.’’
As often as not that somebody will be the laid-back Lochte, who swims at 78 rpm but lives at 16. Lochte will go head to head with archrival Michael Phelps in the men’s 400-meter individual medley half an hour before Beisel takes the blocks.
‘With last summer’s success, she is a lot more confident than what she was.’
“Ryan is like my brother, probably one of my best guy friends on the team and somebody I have looked up to since I was 12,” she said. “For me to be able to be friends with him and train with him every day and watch how great he is at dealing with pressure and always so relaxed, it’s so cool to be with that all the time.”
For Beisel, who tends to rev herself into the red zone before a big race, Lochte serves as a calming cold compress. “He can tell if I’m tense and he’s like, ‘Yo, Beis, chill out,’” she said. “So I definitely need to be around him.”
It is serendipitous that Beisel’s best event (she also swims the 200-meter backstroke) is the first women’s final of the eight-day meet. Otherwise, she might blow her curly chlorinated top waiting for her moment on deck. What she has learned is that the most daunting challenge at Olympus is doing what the world expects you to do.
Beisel is not only the global titleist, she also has the year’s best time (4 minutes 31.74 seconds), nearly half a second ahead of China’s Zheng Rongrong. If she doesn’t win the gold medal, it will be viewed as an upset. And if the winner is Hannah Miley, the world silver medalist, it could be Great Britain’s first gold medal of the Games.
There was no expectation in Beijing, where Beisel didn’t figure to make the podium as a rookie. Yet when she finished fourth in the 400-meter individual medley behind teammate Katie Hoff, she found herself disappointed. “You know, it was frustrating,” she acknowledged. “You always want to win a medal, but again I was so little and I was just so happy to be there.”
Beisel knew she had at least one more shot at the Olympic podium and a couple of years in Gainesville to prepare for it.
“In 2008 she was a high school girl that I don’t think realized what happened to her,” said US men’s head coach Gregg Troy, who directs the Florida program. It was clear, though, that Beisel had the goods to be a global champion.
By the time she started college, she had won bronze in the 200-meter backstroke at the 2009 world meet. Beisel made an immediate splash at Florida. By the time she was a sophomore last season, she already had won the world title.
“With last summer’s success, she is a lot more confident than what she was,” Troy said. “She was a nervous wreck every event, and she has gotten better at handling those things.”
Not that her anxiety level didn’t soar before last month’s Olympic trials in Omaha, where only the top two in each event made the squad. A false start, a botched turn, an unknown 15-year-old version of herself — any of them could have kept her home on the couch. “This time a lot more people expect me to make the team and do bigger things,” she said then. “Four years ago it was like, ‘Oh, it would be cool if this young girl makes it.’ It’s harder this time because I have more to lose than I did last time.”
So Beisel attacked the race fiercely, beating Caitlin Leverenz by nearly three seconds and missing Hoff’s US record by barely six-tenths of a second. Then she earned a return ticket in the 200-meter backstroke, finishing second to world titleist Missy Franklin, and exhaled with a whoosh that could be heard in Trafalgar Square. “LONDON STATUS — BEYOND EXCITED,” she tweeted.
The challenge since has been to keep her competitive neurons firing without frying her circuitry. Up against Australian defending champion Stephanie Rice, Miley, and Zheng, and with the decibels inside the natatorium at Heathrow takeoff levels, just getting to the wall first will take Beisel’s best race. What helps is that Beisel beat all comers when they last met for table stakes in Shanghai. “She’s a fighter, and you can’t really train that,” McKeever said. “If I had to go into battle, I’d want Beisel right next to me.”
If Beisel does win the gold and kickstarts the week for a loaded American women’s team, she will probably get what passes for a ticker-tape parade in Providence since she is Rhode Island’s only Olympian in any sport.
“It’s such a small community because everybody knows everybody, and if you’re on TV I guess everybody recognizes you,” she said. “It’s weird going home and everybody knowing who I am, and I don’t like the spotlight that much, but it’s cool that they’re all behind me in Rhode Island.”
Already, Beisel is the biggest thing to come out of Saunderstown since Granny Squibb’s Iced Tea.
A gold medal just might get her a few endorsements, but it would mean that her college career would be over midway.
“I would rather finish that than rush into something that I don’t know what it’s all about, you know?” she said.
Going back to Gainesville would mean a diploma and two more Southeastern Conference meets, which Beisel says she might like more than the Olympics. Uncle Sam’s team may be the best in the world, but they don’t get to race Georgia.