RALEIGH — What looks like a swimming pool to most folks is turning out to be a fountain of youth for Raleigh resident Erika Braun.
A 50-meter freestyle specialist, the 40-year-old former Georgia Bulldog is turning better times now than she did as a teenager.
During last weekends Josh Weaver Memorial Meet in Chapel Hill, Braun pulled off one of the most impressive accomplishments of the sports year by qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials. With a 26.32-second time, she easily cleared the Trials threshold of 26.39.
Im surprised too, she said.
Braun will join 45-year-old Dara Torres and several other qualifiers at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb., June 25 through July 2. Most of their rivals for two 50-meter freestyle berths on the USA team headed to London for the Summer Games will be much younger.
Braun, director of human resources for Golden Corral, said she isnt even thinking about booking a flight to England.
For me, the ultimate goal was getting to the Trials, she said. Thats going to be a thrill being there with the best in the country. The competition in the sprint races is so intense that itll come down to split seconds.
A native of Louisville, Ky., Braun reached the 1988 Trials as a 16-year-old competing at the high school level in suburban Minneapolis. Torres, then a 21-year-old Californian, also qualified for the meet in Austin, Tex. Neither one advanced to the Summer Olympics that year in Seoul, South Korea.
But four years ago, Torres, at age 41, made the U.S. team, went to Beijing, China and returned with three silver medals.
Although Braun and Torres have been at a few of the same events over the years, the two arent acquainted.
We dont know each other personally, but shes been an inspiration for swimmers of all ages, Braun said. Shes had one of the most amazing careers ever.
As impressive as Brauns feat last weekend is the fact that she went 12 years without doing any sort of competitive swimming.
After her second year at Georgia, she more or less retired to concentrate on academics and didnt return to the sport until gaining an interest in triathlon competition in her 30s.
The swimming aspect of the triathlon triggered my interest again, Braun said. After a while, I entered a couple events with the Raleigh Area Masters team and started I guess what you would call more serious training. I fell back in love with the sport.
With the Raleigh Area Masters team, she worked with volunteer coaches Sue Haugh and Steve Weatherman before adding the coaching help of the Marlins of Raleighs Paul Silver in December.
Braun also credits wellness expert Danny Maresca, who has helped Brauns husband, a retired lawyer who has multiple sclerosis.
Thanks to my husband (Eric) and Danny, Im training a lot smarter than I ever thought possible, Braun said. Eric is my greatest inspiration, and Danny has really helped him in fighting M.S. Ive been fortunate to have such a great support group.
Silver, 52 and a career coach, has been surprised by Brauns speed.
But only to a point, Silver said. Shes a remarkable athlete with a great perspective on sports and life.
I think she gets a lot of her terrific attitude from Eric and how he battles. Before last weekend, shed missed the Trials requirement by a tenth of a second or less several times. But it never got her frustrated or discouraged.
And I think she can improve some over her time in Chapel Hill. Swimming can be very unpredictable. Most of the people Erika is training with are in their teens and 20s. Shes out there sometimes with my 14-year-old son (Tyler), and some other kids just as young. Shes just very unique.
Silvers swimmers have had a hot qualifying season even if you dont include Braun. Three other Marlins Carys Victoria Mitchell (University of Louisville), Raleighs Taylor Harris (N.C. State) and recent North Carolina graduate and Raleigh resident Vinny Pryor have qualified in various events for Omaha. A few other Marlins have a chance to meet qualifying times during the next two weeks.
Braun has scaled back some of her pre-Trials race plans but will compete next week in the Santa Clara (Calif.) International Grand Prix, where shell try to qualify for the Trials in the 100 free.
The 100 is tougher because you have to breathe at some point during the race, Braun said. My entire training focus has been on the 50, where you dont really need to breathe in the race. It actually slows you down.
In the 100, her best time thus far is 58.50 seconds, about a second off the Trials requirement of 57.19.
Id like to hit it, but well just have to see, she said. Itll be fun just to see if I can come closer. I do have some time to concentrate on a 100 strategy.
Braun has entered the Capital City Meet, June 8-10, at the Triangle Aquatic Center, which is located at 275 Convention Drive in Cary.
Im really looking forward to that meet, she said. This whole process has been like a dream come true and hopefully, its done a little something to highlight swimming in our area. Its a great sport. I guess I can say its one you can enjoy at any age.