Saturday, September 4, 2010

Libby's Back

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past three days, you know that Libby Trickett announced on Wednesday that she is coming back to swimming after a brief retirement in hopes of making her third Olympic team in 2012. This is arguably the best news out of the swimming world in some time. Not only is this a major boost to Australia's hopes headed into London, but it also is an obvious bonus to have Trickett in the sport. The always-smiling sprint superstar has been well-missed this season.

I remember when Trickett, then Libby Lenton, won five golds at the World Championships in 2007, becoming arguably the best female sprinter in the world. Two days later, Trickett took on Michael Phelps in a mixed freestyle relay at the Duel in the Pool in Sydney, becoming the first woman in history to break 53 seconds in the 100 free, posting a 52.99. That time never became the world record, but Lenton returned under her married name one year later to set the record straight, posting a time of 52.88 at the Australian Olympic Trials.

At the Games in Beijing, Trickett won gold in the 100 fly early in the meet, but she came very close to missing the final of her signature 100 free. Four years after coming into the Games as the world record-holder but finishing ninth, only a DQ from top qualifier Pang Jiaying could keep history from repeating itself. Trickett took the final out hard from lane eight, only to be caught by Germany's Britta Steffen in the closing strokes, and Steffen out-touched Trickett by 0.04 to take the gold, the world record still standing. Despite this, Trickett had finally won an Olympic medal in the 100 free, and she had a big smile on her face as she congratulated Steffen. Perhaps not the smile as when she broke the world record above, but she still kept her grace in defeat. Trickett would later finish fourth in the 50 free, in which she held the world record both coming into the Olympics and leaving it, while she took two relay medals: gold in the medley and bronze in the 4x100 free.

One year later, Trickett found herself left behind as Steffen took advantage of the full polyurethane suits to crush the world records in both the 50 and 100 free. Trickett stayed in the LZR Racer suit she wore in Beijing, and while she did manage to beat her 52.88 in the suit, she could only manage a bronze medal in the final, nearly a second behind Steffen's world record of 52.07. Despite an obviously disappointing performance, Trickett once again had her signature smile on her race seconds after touching, happy for Steffen's outstanding performance. However, for the first time since 2003, Trickett walked away from a major competition with no gold medals, as her two relay teams both came up short as well (bronze in the 4x100 free and silver in the 4x100 medley).

A month after Worlds, Trickett announced she would take an extended break from the sport before deciding her future. The suit controversy had worn her down, many believed, and she no longer had the desire to chase untouchable records, and she didn't believe her one final major goal could justify three more years in the sport. As the months rolled on, it became painfully obvious that Trickett would not be returning to the sport for the season and quite possibly retire altogether. And then came the night of December 13, a Sunday, Monday morning in Australia. The headline: "Libby Trickett Expected to Retire Tomorrow."

2010 began. Australia dearly missed Trickett. The 100 free at Australian Trials proved a list of things that could go wrong with Australia's sprint corps. Their sprint relay could not approach the Americans at Pan Pacs, after defeating them by two seconds the year before. In the hands of a backstroker and a 14-year-old girl, the women's sprinting squad lacked the star power of years before. Trickett remained on deck as a sports reporter and post-race interviewer through Pan Pacs, but her bubbly excited approach to the sport was nowhere to be found in the water.

Wednesday, September 1. It's been a busy day for me. I haven't been on the Internet. I come home from a tiring day of school and swimming. I see the new headline. She's back. Yes!

Her eight-and-a-half month break refreshed Trickett. Being on the pool deck but not in it, she realized she missed the competition and even smell of chlorine, and she got the swimming itch. After Pan Pacs, she knew she was ready to come back. She is ready to chase her one major goal: Olympic gold in the 100 free.

Trickett may not be eligible to qualify for next year's World Championships (which Craig Lord can explain better than myself, here and here), but the sport is definitely better than it was one week ago. Trickett is a great person, swimmer, and role model, and the sport has one of the greatest and most excitable talents back in the water. The road to London will be an exciting one, and look for some outstanding performances from Trickett along the way. Whatever happens, she will always have that amazing smile on her face, no matter the result.