Swimming in the 100-meter backstroke finals this past week at a Speedo Champions Series summer sectional meet in Columbia, Mo., Courtney Caldwell’s third-place finish represented much more than another medal to add to her steadily growing collection.
Her finishing time, 1:03.68, qualified the 16-year-old member of the Lawrence Aquahawks swimming club for the upcoming U.S. Open in a second event, months after securing her spot in the 100-yard freestyle (49.98).
However, Caldwell won’t be packing her bags and trekking west for the national event in Irvine, Calif., next week. The Free State High junior and her luggage will be bounding along some interstate with her parents, two brothers and sister toward St. George Island, Fla., the long-scheduled vacation getaway spot for the Caldwell family.
“We plan bad,” Caldwell said, grinning.
Her parents, Joe and Michele, booked the summer trip this past winter, before she qualified for the U.S. Open in the 100 free, in March at a sectional in Jenks, Okla. They looked into flying her out to compete once they learned the meet coincided with their trip to the opposite coast, but it wasn’t feasible.
Competing at the national meet would have been a first for Caldwell, a two-time Class 6A state champion in the 50 free and 100 free and state meet record-holder in both events. She’ll be enjoying some down time on the beach with her parents and three siblings, instead.
At least she still will get to make a trip out to Irvine. That’s also the site of the U.S. Junior Nationals (Aug. 5-9). Caldwell qualified for the 100 free, 100 back, 100 fly and 50 free for the 18-and-under meet. The day after her family returns from its Florida road trip, Caldwell and her parents will fly out to California.
The unexpected scheduling conflict is just one portion of Caldwell’s hectic summer. She attended an elite sprint camp at Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio, and the family will make stops at the University of Georgia and Florida State before they arrive at St. George Island, so Caldwell can check out some swimming programs on unofficial visits.
The most demanding aspect, though, is the time investment it takes to compete at a high level. Caldwell practices with the Aquahawks and coach Andrew Schmidt six days a week, with two-a-day practices three times a week.
“I have free time,” Caldwell said, “but I usually spend it sleeping.”
She needs the rest to recover from all the training, and the naturally outgoing teenager considers herself fortunate to have “really, really good friends, who are understanding of my schedule” and flexible and supportive.
After all, one can’t dabble in swimming and reach an elite level. Caldwell said she began racing for the Aquahawks at 7, and almost immediately took it seriously. This sport in particular just clicked for her.
“I’ve tried everything — volleyball, basketball, swimming, gymnastics,” Caldwell said. “I think it was more of the racing portion for me, kind of the adrenaline rush and all of that. That was a good feeling for me.”
The exhilaration starts right before a race and continues until after it ends, but she often doesn’t remember the details of the event itself afterward.
“When I race, I try not to focus on technique because then I over-think it and the race falls apart,” Caldwell said. “You kind of just have to go.”
Schmidt joined Aquahawks head coach Justin Clossen’s staff this summer, and he soon recognized Caldwell’s personality and approach helped her succeed, as well as her long arms, legs and feet.
“One of her greatest assets is she doesn’t really like to talk about the races that much,” said Schmidt, noting Caldwell prefers to hear a couple of quick tips before she steps onto her starting block, and has no interest in talking about achieving specific times.
Once she’s in the pool, Schmidt said she has a unique ability to move under control.
“Her natural feel for the water,” the coach said, “is something that is very hard to teach kids.”
This summer has taught Caldwell how to handle imperfect situations with grace. Admittedly frustrated about being unable to compete at the U.S. Open, she now looks at the silver lining. Her family trip will provide a nice break from the swimming grind.
“At first, I was gonna try to skip my vacation,” she said, “but I’m just rolling with the punches now.”