Pelton avoids sickness, sets American record in 200 backstroke

Training with Phelps helps push 17-year-old to new speeds

March 09, 2011|By Kevin Van Valkenburg, The Baltimore Sun

All around her, as she was preparing for one of the biggest races of her career, 17-year-old Elizabeth Pelton tried to ignore the swimmers who looked like they were about to throw up on the pool deck.

Some of them didn't just look sick. For two days, they were literally vomiting right in front of her at the Maryland State Championships, held this past weekend at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

"We were calling it The Plague," Pelton said. "I was a little nervous about it, thinking I was going to get it next. I was thinking 'Ok, I didn't train for the last six months just so I could get sick on the deck at this meet.' As we got close to the race, I just tried to turn my brain off and go on autopilot."

Fortunately, Pelton stayed healthy, even though 89 other swimmers fell ill, according to the meet officials. And that bizarre outbreak of illnesses couldn't completely overshadow Pelton's big moment on the final day of the meet. The rising star from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club set an American record in the 200-yard backstroke with a time of 1 minute, 46.16 seconds, breaking a mark Natalie Coughlin had held since 2002.

Pelton — who competed for the United States at the FINA World Championships in Rome two years ago at age 15 — says the race is mostly a blur, but she did peek at the clock on the final turn and sensed that it was going to be close.

"Just hold on for this last 50," Pelton said, when asked what was going through her mind.

When she touched the wall, NBAC coach Bob Bowman let out a victorious roar, and Pelton — who wears braces — allowed herself a rare toothy grin.

"It was almost a feeling of relief," Pelton said. "It was kind of like 'Finally!'

In Bowman's eyes, the record was especially impressive because Pelton's swim came while wearing a textile suit, much like Coughlin's did nine years ago. The super sleek microfiber suits — which helped thrash records left and right before they were banned — played no role. But for the most part, what Pelton did wasn't unexpected. This is just another small step for a swimmer who has made a steady progression toward greatness ever since she moved from Connecticut to train at NBAC in 2006. Pelton could be a serious threat to medal at the FINA World Championships this July in China.

"I think this is just a logical progression for her," Bowman said. "[The record] was our goal going in. But it was still really exciting. Her first two swims [of the meet] honestly weren't that great, but on Sunday she really just put it all together."

Unlike some swimmers, Pelton has really benefited from training alongside Michael Phelps the last two years, especially recently. She's home schooled, so she's been able to travel with Bowman and Phelps to Colorado twice now for altitude training without having to worry that she's neglecting her studies.

"I feel like, in the past two months, I've really put my head down and focused on training," Pelton said. "I think that's really helped. I did literally everything I possibly could in preparation for this meet."

In some respects, Pelton might be more intense in the pool than Phelps is — at least during practice. Bowman likes to joke that she's so serious he can scarcely remember the last time he saw her crack a smile. When Pelton heard that her coach had described her that way, she didn't smile so much as smirk.

"He really only sees me when I'm at the pool," Pelton said. "That's when I'm focuses the most. He probably hasn't seen me when I'm out of my swimming mode."

Either way, the rest of the world better take Pelton seriously. She's only getting faster.

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