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Triumph in the pool: Freshman qualifies for the Olympic Trials

Finishing the 100-meter backstroke with a time of 1:02.3 at a mid-season meet at Rutgers University last month, Natalie Mannion ’22 waited eagerly to learn whether she would be headed to the Olympic Trials. Seconds later, the announcer confirmed she had qualified, and she celebrated in the water as her teammates jumped up and down with excitement on the pool deck and cheered for her from the stands. 

“I didn’t want to celebrate at first because I wasn’t 100 percent sure I made the cut,” Natalie said. “I was super excited, and all my teammates were super excited for me. Honestly, I think they were more excited than I was.”

Natalie’s time at the January 19 meet was .3 seconds faster than the cut time set for the Olympic Trials, which will take place in Omaha, Nebraska, in June of 2020. 

“Going into the meet, I really didn’t think I was going to do anything special. I was just pumped to go on a travel team with my friends,” she said. 

Natalie’s older siblings started swimming at a young age, she said, so beginning the sport when she was 4 seemed natural. In 2010, Natalie joined her first competitive team, Charles River Aquatics, and three years ago, in 2015, she switched to her current team, Commonwealth Current. Both teams are located in the Boston area. 

Every week, Natalie trains for 17 hours and 15 minutes over eight practices. She swims every day except Saturdays and works out before and after school two days a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays. Her longest practices, lasting three hours and 30 minutes, happen on Sundays. Three times a week, Natalie both swims and trains out of the water, box jumping, jumping rope, and exercising her core. 

Natalie said she will not drastically change her training plan for the Olympic Trials. Her goal right now, she added, is to qualify for World Juniors, an international meet that takes place in August. To qualify and represent the U.S. at World Juniors, Natalie must rank in the top two for the 18-and-under category for any event offered at the meet. 

Natalie said balancing school work and swimming has been a challenge for her. Even though she tries to use her free blocks wisely, she said, she does most of her work at home. 

“I just try to find a place in my house where I can just sit and do work,” she said. “It isn’t really an option to get home, watch six episodes of my TV show, and then get to work. It’s like, go to school, go to practice, get work done.”

Macey Mannion—Natalie’s older sibling and teammate, who attends Phillips Academy in Andover—said that even with time-consuming practices, Natalie consistently makes time for school work.

“She has always been really determined and hardworking in the pool, never missing a practice and always having a good attitude,” Macey said. “She’s always pushing herself and her teammates and encouraging everyone to do their best.” 

Commonwealth Current Coach Chris Sheppard, who has worked with Natalie for the past three years, described Natalie as a focused athlete and a positive influence on her teammates. 

“Natalie is a great mood setter in practice, encouraging her teammates, and she races anyone in her lane or lanes near her,” he said. “She has also done a good job of creating small team traditions that keep her teammates motivated, such as counting down the remaining repeats of a set or [doing] handshakes at various points in practice.” 

Her teammates are the reason she loves swimming and continues to work hard, Natalie said. 

“We [Commonwealth Current] are still fairly small, but we’re all friends. My teammates always keep pushing me,” she said. “Most of the team is on the same page about where we’re working towards, and if not, they’re there just to support those people who have those high standards.”

Although Natalie qualified for the Olympic Trials with backstroke and thinks of herself as a freestyle and backstroke specialist, she still races in other events during regular season meets. Coach Sheppard said he has encouraged this practice and hopes she will improve in other events, such as the 200-meter butterfly and the 400-meter Individual Medley, which contains all four strokes.

Before meets, Natalie said she tends to eat the same meal—pasta, chicken, and broccoli—and cuts down on dessert. She also has the same pre-race ritual, which she said gets her in the zone. 

“I jump five times. I get up on the diving blocks, and I clap four times,” she said. “I shake my arms three times. I fix my goggles in the count of two. I breathe once, so it’s like 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. And then I know I’m ready to go.”

Reaching the 2020 Olympics on Team USA is a goal, Natalie said. Until then, she has over a year to train for the June trials, where she would need to swim her event, the 100-meter backstroke, faster than the Olympic qualifying time, which is 1:0.25.

“I am just looking to see where this year before trials takes me,” she said.

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