Midtown: Sports

Tudor: Raleigh swimmer, 40, turning pools into fountain of youth

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.

“I’m surprised too,” she said.

During the Josh Weaver Memorial Meet in Chapel Hill on May 18-20, 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.

At Omaha, Neb., June 25 through July 2, Braun will join 45-year-old Dara Torres and several other qualifiers in competition, most of whom will be much younger, for two 50-meter freestyle berths on the USA team in the July 27 through August 12 Olympics in London.

Braun, director of human resources for Golden Corral, isn’t even thinking about booking a flight to England.

“For me, the ultimate goal was getting to the Trials,” she said. “That’s going to be a thrill – being there with the best in the country. The competition in the sprint races is so intense that it’ll 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 advanced to the Seoul, South Korea Olympics.

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 aren’t acquainted.

“We don’t know each other personally, but she’s been an inspiration for swimmers of all ages,” Braun said. “She’s had one of the most amazing careers ever.”

As amazing as Braun’s 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 didn’t 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.”

‘A remarkable athlete’

With the Raleigh Area Masters team, she worked with coaches Sue Haugh and Steve Weatherman before adding the coaching help of Paul Silver (Marlins of Raleigh team) in December.

Braun also credits wellness trainer Danny Maresca, who has helped Braun’s husband, a retired lawyer who has multiple sclerosis.

“Thanks to my husband (Eric) and Danny, I’m 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. I’ve been fortunate to have such a great support group.”

Silver, 52 and a career coach, has been surprised by Braun’s speed.

“But only to a point,” Silver said. “She’s 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, she’d 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. She out there sometimes with my 14-year-old son (Tyler).”

Silver’s swimmers have had a hot qualifying season even if you don’t include Braun. Three other Marlins – Cary’s Victoria Mitchell (University of Louisville), Raleigh’s Taylor Harris (N.C. State) and recent North Carolina grad 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.

Local appearance

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 she’ll 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 don’t 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.

“I’d like to hit it, but we’ll just have to see,” she said. “It’ll 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.

“I’m really looking forward to that meet,” she said. “This whole process has been like a dream come true and hopefully, it’s done a little something to highlight swimming in our area. It’s a great sport. I guess I can say it’s one you can enjoy at any age.”