Freshman swimmer achieves Olympic Trials cuts in 200 fly

September 29, 2022 — by Meher Bhatnagar
Photo by Kelsey Zhang
Zhang swimming in the 200 mixed freestyle relay
The 14-year-old will compete in the 2024 Indiana Olympic Team Trials.

As a competitive club swimmer, freshman Kelsey Zhang gets up before the sun rises at 4:50 a.m. and is in the pool at 5:30 — for the first of two practices in her daily schedule. 

The goal for the best of club swimmers is to achieve times that qualify them for the Olympic trials.

That is what Zhang recently did in the International swim meet hosted by Santa Clara Swim Club. Zhang had what she called “the best swim of her life” without even realizing it: She swam a personal record of 2:13.18 in the 200-meter butterfly. 

As a child, Zhang was inspired by Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin  racing in Team USA swimming events. She dreamed of becoming an Olympic swimmer just like them. 

Having begun competitive swimming at age 5, Zhang was always one of the youngest kids to compete in larger competitions like the Junior Olympics and Far Western Swim Championships. She was introduced to the sport by her parents and always enjoyed the feeling of being alone in the water and focusing on herself when she swam. 

Now, after nine years of hard work, Zhang has made her way up to the Palo Alto Stanford Aquatics team’s National Group at just 14. Swimming for a national team as a freshman is an achievement in itself, but Zhang has higher aspirations that shone when she achieved time cuts fast enough to qualify for racing in the Indiana Olympic Team Trials in 2024.

“I was just pacing off of the girl next to me and I didn’t know I got Olympic Trials cuts till my coaches and parents told me,” she said. “I was trying to catch up to her on the third lap and I did. I was really happy after that race.”

Zhang noted that her Olympic Trials race didn’t hurt as much as some other races when she touched the wall. Normally when she finishes her races, her muscles ache and fill with lactic acid buildup that make it hard to finish the race strong. She attributes this improvement to all the stretching and conditioning she had done prior to the race.

Generally, in larger Team USA competitions and championship swim meets, swimmers race in the preliminaries in the morning, and the top 10 swimmers come back in the evening for a second opportunity to race in finals as a chance to better their times. Zhang noticed she was swimming well at Santa Clara Swim Club’s International meet and wanted to push herself more in each of her races.

“I was making finals and dropping lots of time,” Zhang said. For Zhang, “lots of time” means 1-2 seconds, which makes a huge difference in a sport like swimming. 

She explained that disqualifications from minor mistakes, which she’d made in the past, are common in a race like the 200 fly, so her primary goal going into the race was to make sure all her strokes, turns and breakouts were legal.

“I was really focusing on my walls and touching with two hands, and making sure my kick was not illegal,” she said. “I feel like if I didn’t have that fear, my turns would have been a lot faster and I would have gone even faster.”

In the two years leading up to the 2024 Olympic Trials, she wants to compete in more USA swimming events like the Junior Pan Pacific Championships and other big meets. 

“I want to socialize with a lot of fast people — that really pushes me to keep working harder,” Zhang said. “I also want to go to more training camps and other big meets with my teammates.” 

Zhang is also excited to compete for the school’s team. She is looking forward to racing against her club team friends at other schools.

To balance the responsibilities of a student athlete, Zhang is taking a class called Strategic Learning so she can finish the majority of her homework in class. On certain days where she doesn’t have morning practices, she said she does her homework in the morning before school starts rather than in the evening since she is so used to waking up early for practices. 

As her club’s winter season is fast approaching, Zhang hopes to make improvements from last summer’s season by better organizing her schedule so she can go to bed on time. She also wants to learn how to recover from her races faster so she doesn’t feel so sore. 

“Becoming an Olympian is what pushes me to keep swimming,” she said. “My parents, coaches and teammates push me every day to be my best.”

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