Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick
By David Rieder.
On both the second and third nights of the World Junior Championships, Grace Ariola swam in an individual final. On both nights, things didn’t go quite as planned. And each time, as soon as she got out of the water, she had to re-focus right away, with important business still to attend to.
Thursday night, all in the span of under an hour, Ariola would compete in the 100 free semi-finals, the 100 back final and then on the mixed 400 medley relay, where she was set to anchor.
But that triple got off to a rocky start. Ariola had been gunning for the 1:00-barrier in the 100 back, having swum a time of 1:00.39 in the semis, but her speed was zapped coming off the 100 free semi. She was dead-last at the halfway point and had to pull off an impressive recovery to finish sixth in 1:00.58, two tenths slower than her time from the semi-final.
But as soon as it was over that swim did not matter. She retreated behind the big curtain hanging behind the starting blocks and hopped in the diving well.
That pool has been off limits for warm-up and warm-down most of this week, with the area behind the curtain serving as the athletes’ final call room. But special exception has been made for athletes competing in multiple races in one session—like Ariola.
The toughest challenger for the American relay would be Canada, with Olympians Penny Oleksiak and Taylor Ruck on that squad. But on the anchor leg, Ariola’s opponent from north of the border would be an even more daunting challenger: Rusian Gaziev, a man capable of splitting 49 seconds for a 100 free.
An extremely high-pressure situation with a big relay medal at stake? Those are the situations Ariola craves.
“I love being in the anchor position. That’s my favorite spot to be,” Ariola said. “I think I swim my best there because pressure is on, I have to do well, there’s no room to go back and forth on it. I have to do it.”
Ariola dove in with a slight lead, but Oleksiak had kept it close enough to American butterflyer Nick Albiero, also swimming his third race of the night, giving Gaziev the chance he needed. Ariola ended up splitting 54.77, the fastest 100 meters of her life, but not enough to hold off the overpowering Gaziev. But still, the Americans had picked up a silver.
The following night brought another difficult turnaround—only a double, but Ariola would have to swim two finals in the span of a half-hour.
First up was the 100 free final, where Ariola finished seventh in 55.46. Her goggles had leaked during the race, and her time was slower than the 55.08 she had swum in the semi-finals. Not quite what she had been hoping for.
But with the all-important relay still to come, Ariola had no choice but to forget about the 100 free.
“I had to,” she said. “I knew that (my teammates) were counting on me, and I knew that’s what I wanted—I knew I wanted better than that. I tightened my goggles the next time. I was shaking on the blocks a little bit, but I wanted it, I wanted it for my team.”
If she needed inspiration, Ariola need only think back two years, to when she made her debut at the World Junior Championships in Singapore.
“I was a prelims swimmer for a medley relay, and I watched my team get fourth,” she recalled. “That was super disappointing to not get a medal, and I did not want to do that to someone else.”
Her task on the mixed 400 free relay was—you guessed it—to anchor. Her toughest competition, once again: Canada, anchored by a female swimmer this time, but that female turned out to be Oleksiak, the co-Olympic gold medalist in the 100 free.
Diving in with only a four-tenth advantage over Oleksiak, Ariola’s chances at gold were remote, at best. But she would have a tough task to even secure a medal, with the Russian, Hungarian and Australian teams all right in the mix with 100 meters to go.
Having been dealt less than a half-hour of recovery time, Ariola admitted that she was shaking on the blocks, and she fell back to fourth on the first 50, but she hung tough, pulling ahead of Hungary and Russia and hold off Australian anchor Eliza King. She split 54.90 to secure the silver medal.
Over the first three days of the meet, Ariola had raced eight times, four of them in gold-medal finals. And despite being fatigued in both relay finals, she kept her composure, swam quick splits and picked up two silver medals. Think she’s tough?
“I come from a tough team,” Ariola said of her home club, Waves Bloomington in Illinois. “On the back of our t-shirts, we have ‘mental toughness.’ That’s just something that we teach ourselves, and that’s just one of our core values.”
And after all that, the meet was only halfway done—eight races down and eight still to go. Individually, Ariola still had the 50 free and 50 back—she qualified sixth in the prelims of the 50 back Saturday morning—as well as both the women’s 400 free and 400 medley relays. She is likely to again anchor both those teams.
If all goes according to plan in her individual events, she would swim each relay final in a session when she had already competed in an individual final.
“Well, they’re 50s, so they’re not too difficult,” Ariola said of her remaining individual events. “I just know what I have to do, and I’ll do it.”
Ariola is by no means the superstar of the American team competing in Indianapolis, but she has been central to the team’s success. One of five team captains, she has relished the opportunity to be a leader for the team in the water and on deck.
“I want all of them to do so, so well. I’m so for all these people. I can’t explain it,” she said. “I enjoy being a leader. It’s part of who I am. It’s who my mom and dad taught me to be as they were raising me, stand for the right things and lead people to do also the right things.”
As a captain, “doing the right thing” has meant giving all she can give for her teammates—literally—by ignoring any soreness or exhaustion and stepping up in clutch situations while facing long odds.
How has that gone? Well, Ariola has two silver medals to show for those efforts, and she shares at least one of those medals with 11 different teammates.
Over the course of six days at the World Junior Championships, Ariola will likely race a total of 16 times. She won’t win the most medals, and it would take a major upset for her to win gold in any race. But what she’s meant to this American team cannot be undervalued.