(Cover photo: University of Louisville swimming and diving members who will be competing in this year’s Olympic Games. L to R – Carlos Claverie, Joao de Lucca, Tanja Kylliainen, Kelsi Worrell, Andrea Kneppers, and Grigory Tarasevich. Credit: Ashli McLean)
Three women from the University of Louisville women’s swimming team will compete in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil this August. Tanja Kylliainen will represent Finland in the 200 and 400-meter individual medley. Andrea Kneppers will represent her home country of the Netherlands in the 800-meter freestyle. And Kelsi Worrell will represent Team USA in the 100-meter butterfly and 400-meter individual medley.
“This is a new world, I think, for UofL,” said a smiling Louisville head coach Arthur Albiero at a press conference held at the University of Louisville. “In many ways, a new world for our community. And I think [we’re] very proud to be associated with this. We’re calling this a movement.”
Albiero said he’s received emails of supporters who shared that they rearranged their family vacation schedule in order to tune in at 8 p.m. EDT to catch the Olympic Trials on NBC that were held June 26-July 3 in Omaha, Neb.
“As a coach, my number one job right now is to keep things simple,” said Albiero. “We have a fantastic staff that does so much behind the scenes to help us be at this level. I sit here and represent an entire family of coaches and support staff and, really, an athletic department that’s been incredibly supportive to allow us to create a culture. And that’s what we have today, 13 years later, that we have a culture where it’s okay, it’s expected for you to come here and be the very best you can be.”
“It was just a rush of relief,” shared Kylliainen on making the cut for the Olympics. “My whole team was there and I knew as soon as I touched the wall, I knew I had made the cut because my whole team just went crazy.”
Kylliainen explained that in her previous attempts in recent months, she kept missing the cut.
“When I finally made that, I could share it that with all my teammates who had pushed me to that point.”
She even shared an emotional moment with Worrell when it happened. Kylliainen collapsed to her knees when she got out of the pool, and Worrell was there to pick her up.
For Worrell, she will swim alongside one of her heroes, Dana Vollmer, in Rio.
“So many emotions,” said Worrell on finding out she made the cut. “So many good ones.”
Worrell’s family and her Louisville team were right there in the front row, cheering her on.
“Even though there was 15,000 or so people there in the building watching, [it] really felt like I was just there with my team and my family,” she said. “I can’t really describe it other than that, but really surreal.”
Worrell touched the wall to record her time and then heard the announcer say her name before she saw it appear on the board.
“Just really a dream come true to go with some of my idols on the team and with Dana Vollmer,” Worrell added. “It’s just really incredible. Really thankful for the coaching staff and the team here that, really, I couldn’t have done it without all these guys and everyone else… I’m just super excited to be going to Rio with these guys.”
Kneppers found out she is going to Rio just two days ago after having swam the fifth fastest time in the Netherlands at their Olympic Trials back in April. She was alone at home when she received the phone call. She admitted that she just sat there for a moment to take it all in.
“It’s so special to make it with a team like this (Louisville counterparts) and to represent my country and to be there with all these guys. I’m so proud and so extremely happy and really so very excited.”
With her time, Kneppers will enter as a preliminary swimmer and compete to advance in the Games from there.
“We can always see what happens,” she said with a confident smile. “We’re always going for the highest possible. And in the Olympics, anything can happen.”
None of the ladies seem to have any apparent misgivings about this year’s Games being held in Brazil, such as the Zika virus, security concerns, and water/sewage issues. Kylliainen spent two and half weeks there in January, training amongst the wildlife and had no ill experiences. She has stayed up with the team doctor, who has also expressed no major concern. Worrell shared that the Team USA athletes will be given mosquito netting, as well as insect repellent to soak their clothes in. On security concerns, Worrell described how tight security appeared for the Pan American Games held in Canada last summer, which had no known public threats. So she is confident the Olympics will flow smoothly.
The women are currently training alongside three of their teammates from Louisville’s mens’ team who will also compete in Rio: Carlos Claverie will swim for Venezuela; Joao de Lucca will swim for Brazil; and Grigory Tarasevich will swim for Russia.
On all of them training as a unit, Worrell said, “I think we feed off each other for sure.”
She discussed her experience swimming at a dual meet during her freshman year. A qualifying meet for the NCAA Championships, de Lucca asked her, “Are you getting excited?!” Worrell replied, “I don’t know if I’ll even qualify.” Then he passionately responded, “You have to be confident. Believe in yourself. You can do it.”
And Worrell made the finals at NCAAs.
The training together, the leadership that each swimmer exudes, even cheering each other on in practice when, individually, they may not be having a good practice. It all helps.
“It makes us better as a group,” added Kneppers. “It makes you better individually. I makes practice way more fun… Someone’s calling your name and cheering you on. It makes you feel a lot better and it makes you eventually better as an athlete, person, teammate, everything. So I think that makes it special.”
“We’ve had a number of Olympians over the years, but this is different,” said Albiero on his team’s success. “The fact that this puts our program on a completely different level. Not that we’re any better than we were two days ago or three days ago, but we’re perceived that way now. And in the world of recruiting and the world of athletics, that changes the game a little bit. We’re just grateful to be doing what we’ve done here and our approach is we’re just trying to get a little bit better.”
Swimming will be the first eight days of the Olympics Games. For Worrell’s Team USA schedule, she’ll leave Tuesday to train in San Antonio for 10 days, then another 10 days in Atlanta, then they’ll head to Rio.