Rock paintings of swimmers that date back 10,000 years have been found in Egypt. Competitive swimming started in the 1800s, and the sport was included in the first modern Olympics in 1896 — the same year Utah became a state.
And yet, no Utah swimmer had ever represented Team USA at the Olympics — until Rhyan White.
Now it seems White, a Herriman native, is making up for the state’s lost time. The Tokyo Games mark just her second international competition, yet she already came within hundredths of a second of winning a medal in the 100-meter backstroke Monday night. No matter. By the end of the 200 back final in prime time Friday night, she is expected to have one around her neck.
So after all this time, why was White the one to break through?
It’s a combination of factors, of course. Among them is a dedication to the sport, the right coaching and, well, an unusual amount of bend in her legs.
“Her legs flexed in ways that other people didn’t,” said Ron Lockwood, White’s senior coach on the Wasatch Front Fish Market swim team and at Cottonwood High. “She could hyperextend her legs and it didn’t bother her. Now, you know, if my heels passed my knees that far in front of me, I’d have to go to the emergency room. She has mobility that is exceptional.
“It is obviously a defining characteristic of her as an athlete. But again, if it stopped there, if she wasn’t willing to put in the time and run with that as a strength, she would have been a very good athlete, but we wouldn’t be talking about her today because she wouldn’t be an Olympic athlete.”
But from a young age, an Olympic athlete is exactly what White knew she wanted to be.
From missing parties to Missy Franklin
The story, which White no doubt has had to recount innumerable times in the run-up to the Olympics, goes like this:
When she was 15, White met five-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin at a sectional swim meet. While Franklin signed an autograph for her, White informed Franklin: “I’m going to swim in the Olympics someday.”
“She handled it well,” White recalled. “She said, ‘OK, you go do that.’”
White had been making that bold statement for years by that point. As a kid, she’d tell her friends she couldn’t play because she had to train for the Olympics.
“She’s thought it and believed it for a long time,” White’s mother, Jenny, said.
It’s not like White’s sense of purpose came from being part of a long line of elite athletes. Her parents, Jeff and Jenny, played sports in high school but didn’t take them much beyond that. They put Rhyan and all five of her brothers and sisters in swimming in part because the family takes frequent trips to Lake Powell. But Rhyan is the only one who stuck with it.
That willingness to stick with it, Lockwood said, is one of the things that sets White apart. It’s one of the reasons she made it. Few athletes, not to mention their families, will set the rest of their lives aside to chase the sliver of a dream.
Lockwood actually remembers sitting down with a young White’s family to lay out a road map for her success when Jenny informed him they planned to take a monthlong vacation to the beach that summer.
Lockwood started giggling.
“She’s like, ‘Why is that funny?’” he recalled. “I’m like, ‘I just think it’s so wild how talented your kid is and how naive we can be about what it’s going to actually take to see her be exceptional.’ And they started making a lot of the sacrifices.”
White passed up parties and turned down weekend getaways to anywhere other than a swim meet. She woke up before sunrise and went to bed long after sunset while squeezing in two workouts a day about four times a week. None of that fazed her. She does, however, admit it hurt a little to have to quit the cheerleading team.
White had joined so she could bond with her older sister, J.C., who cheered for Herriman High. Only, she’d find herself constantly pulling herself out of the pool and sprinting to get to cheer practice on time. And she would often have to miss cheer events because they conflicted with swim obligations.
Eventually, she realized she was stretching herself too thin.
“There’s a lot of sacrifices that need to be made to swim at an elite level in our sport and to be competitive in any sport,” Lockwood said. “You know, the premier athletes, they’re not getting there by accident.”
A motorboat among paddleboards
Not many kids and families committing themselves to the sport means fewer elite athletes in the pool. That’s another factor that may have contributed to Utah’s lack of potential Olympic swimmers.
As they say, you have to beat the best to be the best.
“It is a challenge here,” Lockwood said of finding next-level competition, “and so it’s hard for those elite athletes to get better.
“There’s an elite year and then there’s a very good year. And just there’s a pretty wide line between them.”
Lockwood was an assistant coach at the University of Utah before starting up the Fish Market team in 2008. He said the level of swimming in the state has increased “dramatically” since his days with the Utes. Still, he said, it remains difficult for the top athletes to find opportunities to really be pushed to their limit in local races.
Jenny White said Rhyan created her own competition by racing against state history. ”There were a handful of people who told her swimmers don’t come out of Utah,” Jenny White said. “Maybe that was part of her fuel, to be perfectly honest.”
White was about 12 years old and had been with the Fish Market team for just a few months when she powered past the competition in a meet in Salt Lake City like a motorboat among paddleboards. Lockwood immediately recognized he had something special on his hands. He also realized that, when it came to maximizing her talent and longevity in the sport, he was out of his depth.
So, he called up an old friend, Todd Schmitz, who had coached Franklin from her youth all the way to the Olympics.
“‘Buddy, I need some help,’” he remembers saying. “‘I think we might have someone special here.’”
Next, he began looking for ways to challenge her.
Looking elsewhere for competition
White traveled often to seek out the elite competition that would push her to the next level. That included — after graduating from the Academy of Math, Engineering and Science, a charter inside Cottonwood High — traveling to Alabama to compete for the Crimson Tide on a full-ride scholarship. But even then, the amount of time she was truly challenged was fleeting. By last season, she was lengths ahead of anyone else in the pool. She was named the SEC Swimmer of the Year and was the SEC’s top individual point scorer at the NCAA championships, where she set a school record in the 100 butterfly.
She said at Alabama is where she stopped saying she was going to be an Olympian and really started believing it. She credits much of that to her Crimson Tide coach Ozzie Quevedo.
“It was like a dream,” she said of the Olympics, “but then it just became kind of more of like a goal.”
Yet after a nearly untouchable season, it was at those same NCAA championships that she found the competition that would push her to the Olympic level. The strong favorite to win NCAA titles in the 100 and 200 back, she was beaten in both — by Wisconsin’s Phoebe Bacon in the 200 and Katharine Berkoff of NC State in the 100.
“I would say I’m kind of grateful that I got second because I think it maybe drove my motivation through the spring,” White said. “I needed to come back and really work hard and try to get a little bit further ahead of my competitors. I think in a way it was a good setback for me.”
At the Olympic trials, facing even faster competition, White rose to the challenge. She beat both Bacon and Berkoff. She swam one of the top 10 times in the world at that moment in each of her events. More importantly, she won the 200 and took second in the 100 behind Regan Smith, who won the bronze medal Monday, to secure her place in two Olympic events and possibly some relays.
And, of course, she made Utah state history.
“I don’t know why I’m the first one,” she said. “But it is really cool.”
Who will follow in her wake?
Determination? Check. Focused coaching? Check. Raw talent? Check.
That’s all an athlete needs to make sure it’s not another 200 years before the state sees its next Olympic swimmer, right? Not exactly, Lockwood said.
Call it luck. Call it je ne sais quoi. Call it a unique ability to be flexible, and not just physically. Making the Olympics takes a special sauce for which even Olympians and those who coach them don’t have the recipe.
“It’s a rare thing,” Lockwood said. He then recounted an analogy he once heard a presenter use at a swimming conference. “He said, you know, there’s an easier chance of an 8-year-old getting into the NBA and being an NBA star than there is of an 8-year-old swimmer growing up to be a U.S. Olympian.
“It’s just, it’s very rare,” Lockwood continued. “And so, you know, this is absolutely the first one I’ve seen and I hope it’s not the last. But I also recognize, like, this is a special moment.”
So it’s hard to say. The next Olympic swimmer from Utah might not come around for another couple of centuries. Then again, they could be diving into the pool right now.
Women’s 200-meter backstroke
Qualification • Thursday, 5:05 a.m. MDT, USA
Semifinals • Thursday, 8:35 p.m. MDT, NBC
Finals • Friday, 7:37 p.m. MDT, NBC