"I hate walls. I hate turns," says northern California native Haley Anderson. An unusual statement to say the least from the reigning NCAA champion in the 500-yard freestyle, a gut-busting four-minute swim that requires 19 flip turns.
But the personable 20-year-old has good reasons for her dislike of walls and turns. She is one of the world's fastest open water swimmers.
"I feel more relaxed in the open water. I love the open water. I like getting ready for anything in the open water. I like the need to be ready to adjust to conditions, currents and the competition. I grew up near a lake [Folsom Lake] in northern California. My sister and I would always walk over for a swim. You can just swim and swim without worrying about walls or turns."
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Her ease in open water is one of the things that helped her qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
"Haley showed such composure at the Olympic Qualifier [in Setubal, Portugal]. She was tactical, patient, relaxed, and focused," said her coach Catherine Vogt. "She showed speed when it was needed. I told her to stay in the front pack, take good feeds, and adjust if anything didn't go according to plan."
Although open water races typically play to her strengths, they also provide more time and opportunity for negative thoughts to creep in.
"During the open water, I have time to doubt myself with lots of negative thoughts. During the first 5K, I was thinking, 'Oh my goodness, I need to work my way up the pack.' But as I started to work my way up the pack, I get more and more positive. It is like a natural progression."
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If she can keep her mind in the right place, her speed can take care of the rest—especially in the closing laps of the two-hour marathon swim in London.
Haley possesses two characteristics that will prove valuable as she circles the Serpentine six times in the Olympic 10K: size and speed. Haley's lengthy frame and fast turnover will be assets she will call upon as she comes barreling toward the finish. She will need to draw on both in order to claim a spot on the podium.
"Haley has been preparing all year," recalled Vogt. "Even with NCAA championships, she has continued to stay focused on her dream. One step at a time, preparing with cold water swims, good pool training and racing."
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While Anderson knew open water, its challenges and allure from an early age, it took her a while to find herself back on the shoreline. She initially focused on the pool and developed into a top age-group swimmer and emerging high school star.
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Now, the fast-improving University of Southern California junior who won her first NCAA championship this year is studying communications, a handy major considering all the interviews she has been giving on her pool and open water exploits.
"I love USC. I have grown up here and matured. I have improved every year here under my coaches Dave Salo, Kevin Clements and Catherine Vogt. The Trojans take such pride in their school, from the students to the professors. You can be walking down the street in your USC shirt and people just come up to you and talk. It is like being in a big family."
And family is a big thing for Anderson who will have her sister Alyssa alongside her in London.
Alyssa, who qualified for the US Olympic Team in the pool, will be focusing on the 200-meter swim.
"My entire family is going to London: parents, sisters, aunts. About ten people I think," Haley explained. "We're so excited to go to the Olympic Village and experience everything the Olympics offers."
In the weeks leading up to the Olympics, Haley is fine-tuning little things to boost her medal chances in the 10K race.
"My coaches and I are working on my turns, drafting, and feeding. I practice with gel packs in my swimsuit during workouts now. I know I have to get better, but I keep learning more and more."
With the biggest race of her career on August 9, she has very little time to study. Fortunately, she trains in arguably the most successful swimming program on Earth. Her workouts have her swimming next to greats like Olympic gold medalists Rebecca Soni and Ous Mellouli. The ambiance of winning is as thick as the color maroon around the Trojan pool deck.
"Ous works out so hard. He is so confident in himself, and tough as nails. We work out together and it is good to have someone to talk to about open water swimming. It's not easy, but that's what's fun about open water; you can talk about the races afterwards with others. It is important to discuss what happens out there with someone who understands what you are going through."
Anderson has been through a lot in her short open water swimming career, from being fast-tracked onto the national open water team to completing a 25K race in cold water (61°F / 16°C) at the 2010 World Open Water Swimming Championships in Canada. With the Olympics in London, the cooler side of the open water plays to her strengths. "I am totally fine with the cold water. It doesn't bother me."
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Nothing much seems to bother Anderson whose DNA seems grounded in optimism and good-nature. She always emerges from the water—cold or warm, rough or calm, pool or open water—with a big smile on her face. "I'm always happy and I love to race."
The hard-working Anderson is certainly ready to race come August 9. Watch for her bright smile at the start?and the finish.
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