NEW HAVEN >> When Erin Earley made her way to Omaha, Nebraska for the first time, she was eager for another chance to test herself against elite competition. Her coach, however, had bigger plans for the Orange native.
Veteran Hopkins swim coach Chuck Elrick has been running the successful Hopkins Mariner Swim Team since 1980 and has had opportunities to work with national team swimmers through American Swimming Coaches Association so he knows a world-class swimmer when he sees one. When Earley was 10 he could tell that she had Olympic potential.
Three years later they flew out to the pool where the upcoming U.S. Olympic Trials will be held and Elrick didn’t mince any words when he told Earley the purpose of the trip to compete in the 2012 Mutual of Omaha Swimvitational.
“I took her out to Omaha and said ‘the only reason you are here is to get used to this venue of 15,000 spectators, the pool, the whole bit so that four years from now you come back with a new goal,’” Elrick said. “We went out, she was successful (finishing 24th in the 200-meter backstroke) in that meet.”
Elrick and Earley came up with a training regiment for the last 18 months all with the purpose of peaking for the 2016 Olympic Trials, which will be held from June 26-July 3 in Omaha.
Earley, the first two-time winner of the Grace Robertson Award as the New England Prep School’s top female swimmer or diver since South Korea Olympian Hee-Jin Chang of Phillips Andover in 2002 and 2003, will swim in three events in Omaha. She is currently seeded 53rd in the 100 backstroke and 139th in the 400 individual medley, but the 200 backstroke is her signature event. She is seeded 16th and has her sights set on making the finals.
“It is my goal to be in that top 8,” Earley said. “I really want to be the semis and the top eight, it would be amazing to be there.
“I started to feel stronger with my strokes, more speed in my arms and I feel like that could happen.”
Missy Franklin won four gold medals at the 2012 Olympics including the 200 backstroke is the top seed while 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Liz Beisel is another headliner in the field.
Earley, who posted a time of 2 minutes, 10.91 seconds at the 2015 Speedo Sectionals, figures she will need swim in the 2:08/2:09 range to make it to the finals.
“She is exactly where 18 months ago, I wanted to be at this point and now it is ‘can she handle it?’” Elrick said. “The competition there is unbelievable. The top eight in Olympic trials for the U.S. will be faster than the top eight at the Olympics.
“This is a fantastic opportunity for her. My goal for her is to make the finals. That would put her among the elite in the world. Physically she is in the right spot, now it is ‘can you handle the pressure and on that one day will everything be in place.’”
Earley comes from a family of swimmers. She figures she first made it into a swimming pool at age 2 and by the time she was 4 she was working with Elrick with the Hopkins Mariner squad.
“It started with my oldest, just trying to get her through swim lessons, she enjoyed swim lessons so much that she wanted to go on a team and we did that,” said Lisa Earley, Erin’s mom. “When they all started to swim, we all said ‘well, there is no point sitting around the house.’”
When Erin was 10 Elrick told Lisa Earley that Erin was more than just a talented swimmer, she had all the makings to be a national-level competitor.
“It is so hard to describe because I can picture the moment, how perfect it was and how much she loved it,” Lisa Earley said. “It was never dragging her hair ‘I don’t want to do (laps) today.’ She always came happily and she started at 4.”
Not long after she began getting serious about swimming she happened to be on vacation with her family in Rhode Island when she saw some of the swimming events at the 2004 Olympics on the television.
“We were just watching it on TV and I said ‘I want to swim there, I want to do that, mom,’” Erin Earley said. “She said it was going to be a lot of hard work and training but I said I didn’t care because I said I want to be there.”
Hard work doesn’t really accurately describe what it has taken for her to get to the elite level. She is in the pool nine times a week typically doing between 7,000-8,000 yards at each training session. She also heads to the gym three times a week and Elrick, who Earley is quick to credit for her emergence as a swimmer, said “I think her body has to be in the water.”
Hockey was among the first sports to catch Earley’s eye as a kid. She also was a dancer and sheepishly admits “I was horrible at both of them and I quit them when I was 8 or so and just focused on swimming.”
Her focus means an incredible amount of hard work. There is a running joke between Earley and Elrick at the training regiment her coach will devise for her on her birthday. When she turned 14, there were interval training in groups of 14. At her most recent birthday, she was greeted with instructions of going through three 1,000-yard swims.
“I remember when I was little all these people calling me a fish,” Earley said with a laugh. “I was OK, as long as I can remember, I’ve been a fish.”
Earley began entering distance freestyle events when she was younger but as she has gotten older, the backstroke became her dominant stroke.
“A few years ago my 2(00) back wasn’t that great but at this one meet when I was 13, I dropped like 10 seconds,” Earley said. “I was like ‘wow, this is something I could do and I could make Olympic Trials with it.”
However, Earley doesn’t walk around like she is the world’s greatest living athlete. A bit on the quiet side, she tends to let her swimming do the talking for her.
“She would rather not be in the spotlight,” Lisa Earley said. “She is very humble and we’re very proud of her. If somebody was walking past her, they really wouldn’t know how successful she is because she doesn’t portray that ‘look at me’ (persona). She would rather be under the radar and be the regular kid she is trying to be through it all.”
Elrick looks at her as just your typical teen.
“She walks around campus having a ball,” Elrick said. “She has fun with everybody. It doesn’t matter what sport they run, she just enjoys being with people.”
That typical teen’s phone is about to become rather busy. Starting on July 1 college recruiters can contact her directly. With the 200 backstroke preliminaries and semifinals set for that day and the final the following day, likely the college coaches won’t be dialing her number until she is done swimming at the trials.
“I know I want to go somewhere that will hopefully let me get to the Olympics in 2020, make me a better student and swimmer,” said Earley, the No. 17 national recruit in the Class of 2017 according to the www.collegeswimming.com site. “After I am done swimming (in the trials) they can talk to me so I will see which coaches will fit best with me.”
Elrick has been down this road before. Grant Gritzmacher was a national-level diver who set a New England Prep School record in the 1-meter diving event in 1996 that still stands. He was recruited by pretty much all the elite programs before heading to Texas where he became an All-American in 1998. He also worked with former Amity High star Margaux Farrell, who won a bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics as part of France’s 4×200 relay team and thinks Earley’s younger sister Cristin, who scored valuable points for the 2016 Hopkins swim team as a seventh grader, has potential to be a national-level swimmer as well.
“It is very similar to Grant,” Elrick said. “It is the same schools, Michigan, Texas, Auburn, Tennessee, it is very similar.”
UCLA reached out to Elrick when Earley was a freshman and offered her a scholarship by the time she was a sophomore.
“Now as we are approaching the trials, every major program in the country has been in contact with us,” Elrick said.
Earley’s first race at the trials will be the 400 IM on June 26 with competition in the 100 backstroke starting the next day. Elrick thinks getting a chance to get a couple of swims in before the 200 backstroke gets going could be beneficial.
“She was very reluctant to swim the 400 IM, one of the most grueling events,” Elrick said. “You qualified for the Olympic trials, whole idea of that is get in, get a good swim with 15,000 people surrounding you, get that out of your system, next day you have 100 back which is your second best event and now you have three days to prepare for the 2(00) back.
“The 400 IM is to get the butterflies out in the big arena,” Earley said. “It seems a bit scary right now but when I get there, I guess I’ll think ‘this is not that bad.’”
Earley is one of 25 swimmers with Connecticut ties expected to compete in the trials including former Cheshire High stars Justine Ress (seeded 67th in women’s 100 backstroke) and Karl Bishop, seeded 102nd in men’s 1,500 freestyle. Guilford’s Corey Gambardella is seeded 83rd in men’s 200 butterfly while Wallingford’s David May is seeded 111th in 200 IM.