London calling for 3 with N.C. ties

London calling for 3 with N.C. ties

Charlotte’s Berens and Thoman, and Raleigh’s Houchin make Olympics

By Scott Fowler, Charlotte Observer

OMAHA, Neb. On a joyous night for swimming in North Carolina, three swimmers with ties to the state sped their way onto the U.S. Olympic team Wednesday night.

Charlotte’s Ricky Berens is the Olympic veteran of the group. The 2008 Olympic gold medalist in the 200-meter freestyle relay made the 200 freestyle relay team once again, even finishing in the same spot (third place) in the 2012 Olympic Trials as he did four years ago.

Charlotte’s Nick Thoman and Raleigh’s Charlie Houchin are the two first-timers. Thoman, a backstroke specialist who moved to Charlotte in 2009 to train at SwimMAC Carolina, finished second in the 100-meter backstroke to become the only one of the three North Carolinians who will get to swim an individual event.

And Raleigh native Houchin, 24, who starred at Raleigh Enloe High and whose parents were both standout swimmers at N.C. State, claimed a spot in the same 200-meter freestyle relay as Berens by finishing sixth in the event.

Houchin generally considers the 400 freestyle his best event – he almost made the team in that earlier in the meet. “But not in this meet,” he said before the final, grinning broadly. Then he came up with a big-time performance to become one of the U.S. Olympic team’s surprise faces.

One note about Houchin: the fifth- and sixth-place finishers in the 100 and 200 freestyle events aren’t officially added to the Olympic team until the end of the meet, once USA Swimming officials determine there is space available due to swimmers qualifying in multiple events.

But for all intents and purposes, those fifth-and sixth-place finishers are always added to the squad. So Houchin will be an Olympian, it’s just not quite official yet by USA Swimming guidelines (Houchin was not immediately available for comment after qualifying).

Thoman made the most dramatic surge among the three North Carolina swimmers Wednesday to make the team. He was sixth halfway through the 100 backstroke, then passed four swimmers in the final 50 meters to earn his way to London.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I can’t stop smiling,” Thoman said after his performance. Thoman was edged by Matt Grevers for first place, but he said he had never felt better about a second-place finish.

Berens could hardly stand after his race due to exhaustion, but he kept flashing a similar smile even while hunched over on his knees five minutes after the race.

“I wanted to make top six (to make the team) and to get third was incredible,” Berens said. “The biggest thing I was thinking in that final 50 was my girlfriend (swimmer Rebecca Soni) would kill me if I didn’t make it. So the whole last 50 I was pushing it. But I was numb. I didn’t know if I was going anywhere.”

For every Olympic dream fulfilled, however, there is corresponding heartbreak. SwimMAC Carolina’s Davis Tarwater was edged at the wall by Houchin – who went to college at Michigan and now trains in Florida – for an Olympic spot. The top six make it in the 200 free, and Tarwater finished seventh by 0.14 seconds.

“Any time you miss the Olympic team by a tenth of a second, that’s pretty tough,” said Tarwater, who also barely missed the Olympic squad in 2008.

But Tarwater, 28, will have another chance Thursday in the final of the 200 men’s butterfly. He won his semifinal heat Wednesday over Phelps only 20 minutes after the two had swum against each other in the 200 free. Tarwater will need to finish first or second tonight to make his first Olympic team in his last Olympic Trials.

There were other near-misses, too. SwimMAC’s Eugene Godsoe, a Greensboro native, swam a personal best in the 100 backstroke final but finished fifth. “I can’t be disappointed,” Godsoe said. “The U.S. is just so strong in the backstroke.”

SwimMAC’s Micah Lawrence finished seventh in the 100 breaststroke.

Berens’ girlfriend Soni was the favorite and finished second to make the Olympic team, as Breeja Larson was the upset winner of the event.

In the 200 men’s freestyle, the big national news was that Phelps edged Lochte for first as the two continued their back-and-forth rivalry and qualified for another individual event apiece. Berens was going to have to surpass one of them to swim the race individually – that was another one of his goals – but wasn’t quite able to do so.