College swimming: 21 Rio Olympians converge for SEC championships
When Kira Toussaint's family travels to watch her swim, it's a big deal.
The Rio Olympics last August was such an occasion. The crew flew in from Amsterdam to support Toussaint swimming the backstroke for the Netherlands.
This week qualifies. The SEC swimming and diving championships open Tuesday at Tennessee's Allan Jones Intercollegiate Aquatic Center. For Toussaint, it will be a belated Senior Day observation.
In this case, mom isn't just a typical parent in the stands. Jolanda de Rover won gold and bronze medals for the Netherlands at the 1984 Olympics.
"We had Senior Day three weeks ago," Toussaint said, "but she couldn't make it. She's coming to the [SEC] meet and I've asked the coaches if we can do the pictures with the family, and we're going to do that."
The meet runs through Saturday. UT's women finished second last year when the meet was at Missouri.
"This is the deepest conference team we've ever had in my time here,'' Tennessee coach Matt Kredich said. "We feel like we can be really competitive for the championship, especially with the women.''
UT's men, Kredich said, might be better suited for the NCAA meet than the conference format that scores 24 spots deep in each event.
Toussaint, whose father is a leading researcher of swimming biomechanics, swims the backstroke and relays. She won silver last year in the 100 back and swam on three gold-medal relays after transferring from Florida Gulf Coast University.
An impetus for transferring to Tennessee was to find an environment to shave time and qualify for the Rio Olympics. Mission accomplished.
"Rio was really amazing," she said. "Walking into the stadium the day of my race, there was a Brazilian girl in my heat and the whole stadium was crazy. It was a really cool experience."
Toussaint finished 18th in the 100 backstroke, barely missing the semifinals.
"I was really disappointed because I could have done that [advanced],'' she said. "I called Matt the day after and he said, 'Well, did you give your all?' Of course I did, yes. He said, 'I'm proud of you, you gave it your all, you raced and the result is the result. You can be proud of yourself.'
"In the beginning I had a hard time accepting that. But now I am really proud of what I did."
Toussaint will see some familiar faces this week in Knoxville.
The meet showcases 21 athletes who competed in Rio. Among them are Caeleb Dressel of Florida and Olivia Smoliga and Gunnar Bentz of Georgia, all of whom won relay gold medals for USA.
All told, 40 foreign flags are represented on SEC rosters.
"It adds a tremendous layer of experience," Kredich said. "Typically, they've gotten quite a bit of international experience. They're usually among the best in their country. They've been in big meets before.
"But there are some things we have to be aware of when we recruit internationally. One of the main things is U.S. swimmers have typically represented their teams before, their high school or club teams, and it really means something.
"Almost everywhere else, yes, they've represented their country at some point but there is not a lot of team competition. It can be a real challenge to bring somebody into a team unless they're looking for that."
Toussaint was. Tennessee missed her on the first pass but Kredich liked what he saw of her at Florida Gulf Coast.
"She especially had an effect on the relays," Kredich said. "I really loved the way she swam. When we met with her in the transfer process, she expressed an appreciation of what she'd seen from our team."
This week Toussaint will help that team compete for an SEC championship. It's a big deal.
This article is written by Mike Strange from Knoxville News-Sentinel (Tenn.) and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.