Charlie Houchin sat outside on a hotel patio Thursday afternoon, trying to get used to calling himself an Olympian.
The homegrown Raleigh swimmer had a lot of help. Omaha temporarily is the capital of the U.S. swim world, and Houchin had to stop our interview every two or three minutes to accept yet another set of congratulations from another part of the extended swim family that was amazed at what he had done Wednesday night.
“Unbelievable,” well-wishers kept saying. “Unbelievable.”
And to many, it was unbelievable. This wasn’t supposed to happen, even though Houchin (pronounced HOW-chin) is an accomplished 24-year-old swimmer with a great pedigree. His parents, Jane and Eddy Houchin, were All-America swimmers at N.C. State and still live and work in Raleigh.
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But Charlie Houchin, who was a star swimmer at Raleigh Enloe High before a decent collegiate career at Michigan, was a longshot to make the Olympic squad at a meet where 97 percent of the swimmers don’t make the team.
That longshot status increased even more when Houchin’s go-to event – the men’s 400 freestyle – came and went Monday without him qualifying.
Houchin swam well to finish fourth, but in that event only two swimmers make the team.
“I let myself be upset for a little while,” Houchin said, “and then I put it behind me.”
His last chance was the men’s 200 free Wednesday. In a loaded field featuring Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Ricky Berens – the Charlottean whom Houchin used to face off against constantly in high school swim meets – Houchin would need the swim of his life to make it.
And he got it.
Houchin dropped more than 1.5 seconds from his best pre-Omaha time to finish sixth with a time of 1 minute, 46.88 seconds. That was a startling drop, and just enough to make the Olympic squad in one of the few events where six swimmers earn a spot instead of two since a relay race is contested at the 200-meter distance.
“I hit the wall and just spun around to see the scoreboard,” Houchin said. “And then I got very happy.”
The NBC cameras were all focused on Phelps, who edged Lochte for first place. (Berens was third, so he and Houchin will be relay teammates).
But among the 12,000 or so people in the stands, a half-dozen N.C. State alums, including Jane and Eddy Houchin, were going wild.
The Houchins are a waterlogged family. Both parents swam well enough to qualify for the Olympic trials, although neither chose to go (Eddy skipped them for his brother’s wedding, and Jane started graduate school instead). Eddy now runs assisted-living facilities and Jane is a high-school chemistry teacher at Trinity Academy, a private school in Raleigh.
All three of the heavily chlorinated Houchin kids earned college swimming scholarships – older brother Joe was at George Mason and Abby, the youngest, currently is swimming at Virginia Tech.
But unlike many with swimming experience, the Houchins never coached their kids in the pool and also encouraged them to play other sports.
“At one point, swimming was just a stop in the afternoon between soccer practices,” Charlie Houchin said.
Houchin, who trains in Jacksonville, Fla., was fortunate to have great competition within the state growing up. Swimmers like Berens, Scot Robison, Matt Patton and Eugene Godsoe all grew up in North Carolina about the same time. All have made the final 16 in at least one event in the 2012 trials.
“If I only had a nickel for every time I swam against Ricky Berens,” Houchin laughed.
Now Houchin will get to swim alongside Berens in an Olympic relay race in London.
And that’s worth a whole lot more than a nickel.