Fowler: N.C. swimmers show their mettle – Olympic medals

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comAugust 1, 2012 

  • • Ricky Berens, 200 free; 4-by-100 relay; 4-by-200 relay. A gold and a silver in relays – then a surprise retirement • Charlie Houchin, 4-by-200 relay; Raleigh product won a gold for swimming in relay preliminary • Cullen Jones, 50 free, 100 free, 400 relay; has a relay silver; hopes to win something in 50 free • Kara Lynn Joyce, 50 free; only one yet not to compete; her event is Friday • Micah Lawrence, 200 breast; swims in final Thursday; seeded sixth • Lauren Perdue, 4-by-200 relay; Greenville native won gold for swimming in relay preliminary • Davis Tarwater, 4-by-200 relay; won a gold for swimming in relay preliminary • Nick Thoman, 100 back; won individual silver medal as part of 1-2 U.S. finish Medal Madness Eight swimmers with North Carolina connections are swimming in these Olympics. Six of them already have medals. Here’s a list of what each swimmer has done so far:
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— I knew North Carolina swimmers were going to bring home some hardware, but this is getting ridiculous.

Of the eight swimmers with N.C. connections who made the U.S. Olympic team, six have already won either a gold or a silver medal. There could be a seventh Thursday if Micah Lawrence can win a medal in the women’s 200-meter breaststroke – she has made the final. And Kara Lynn Joyce, the other swimmer with North Carolina ties who doesn’t have a medal, can’t help it. She hasn’t been in the water yet.

The North Carolina swimmers have made a few headlines out of the water, too. Ricky Berens, the only one of the octet with two medals already in these Olympics, told me he was retiring after winning a gold in the 4-by-200 freestyle relay Tuesday.

Lauren Perdue, the star swimmer at Virginia who grew up in Greenville, met LeBron James, and she impressed him enough that he asked her to go eat with him.

Perdue told me about the encounter, which happened after the U.S. men’s basketball team visited the swimming team in the Olympic Village: “He was kind of joking, but he was basically like, ‘Would you like to come eat with me at the dining hall?’ And I said, ‘Um, I’m sorry, I have a curfew.’ So I turned that one down, yeah.”

Cullen Jones has a chance to tie Berens by getting a second medal. The former N.C. State standout and Charlotte resident since 2008 begins the 50 freestyle – his best event – Thursday. Jones won that event at the U.S. Olympic trials, although Brazil’s Cesar Cielo will be favored to win the Friday night final.

“The 50 is my prime-time event,” Jones said. “I’ve been killing the starts. So I’m excited.”

Nick Thoman may also win a second medal in the 4-by-100 medley relay. He also can boast of the only individual medal in the group so far. Thoman had a near-perfect swim in the 100 backstroke to finish second to U.S. teammate Matt Grevers.

And three other North Carolina swimmers – Charlie Houchin, Davis Tarwater and Perdue – won gold medals by swimming a morning preliminary leg in their respective 4-by-200 freestyle races. They didn’t get to swim in the bright lights of the evening final, but the medal they receive is exactly the same.

So now is it Lawrence’s turn?

The Auburn swimmer took a year off to come to Charlotte and join David Marsh’s Team Elite program at SwimMAC Carolina. Team Elite put five Olympians on the U.S. team, all of whom moved to Charlotte from elsewhere to join Marsh and become part of the community. Thoman, Jones, Tarwater and Joyce are the others.

“I’m not going to feel pressure on myself to win a medal because the others from SwimMAC have,” Lawrence said of Thursday night’s race, in which American Rebecca Soni is the heavy favorite after setting a world record in the event in Wednesday’s semifinal. “I’m just going to do the best I can and hope it turns out well.”

And the best has been plenty good for the N.C. swimmers so far. But one of their stars – Berens – told me he planned to leave the sport, perhaps to go to graduate school, perhaps to do something else. It’s always possible, of course, that Berens will return. A number of Olympic swimmers have followed that path before.

Wednesday I asked Soni, who is Berens’ longtime girlfriend, what she thought about him announcing his retirement this week.

“Oh, he did?” she asked.

Soni wasn’t surprised that Berens was planning to retire. She said she just didn’t know he had said it publicly.

“We’ve talked about it a lot,” said Soni, who has four Olympic medals and will go for a fifth Thursday. “His events are so hard to make every year with all those big guys in it (Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte compete regularly with Berens). I think he just wanted to get one more big hurrah, and he did great. So yeah, I’m excited for him.”

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler

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