published Sunday, June 17th, 2012

Sean Ryan leads area 12 in Olympic trials

Michigan swimmer and McCallie School alumnus Sean Ryan has qualified for the Olympic trials.
Michigan swimmer and McCallie School alumnus Sean Ryan has qualified for the Olympic trials.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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    Baylor School swimmer Kristen Vredeveld has qualified for the Olympic trials.
    Photo by Jake Daniels.
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It wasn't long ago that Nathan and Kristen Vredeveld joined their Stuart Heights teammates in celebrating a Chattanooga Area Swim League victory with a game of sharks and minnows or with a "Jungle Day," when they swam in their clothes.

On June 29, the University of Virginia men's backstroker and the Baylor School women's sprint freestyler will make history as the first Chattanooga siblings to swim at the Olympic Trials. They are sure to be cheered by their father, former Baylor and North Carolina swimmer Roger Vredeveld, who competed in the backstroke in the 1980 Olympic Trials.

"For a lot of people, this is the tops of a career," the proud dad said. "Making the trials is a big deal. It's bigger to make the team, but this is huge, so we're obviously excited to have both of them swimming in this thing at the same time. It's fantastic."

Chattanooga will make an unprecedented splash at the 2012 trials, with 12 current or former swimmers from four high schools representing the area June 25-July 2 in Omaha, Neb. Two of those qualified Saturday in a "last chance" meet at Auburn University.

Heading the contingent is former McCallie School and current Michigan distance freestyler Sean Ryan, who has the best chance of making the London Olympics as the fourth seed in the 1,500-meter free.

Three of the group are still in high school. Kristen Vredeveld and Dalton's Taylor Dale, who has qualified in the 100 backstroke, are rising seniors, and Sam McHugh is a Baylor junior who qualified Saturday for the 100 and 200 back events with times of 57.38 seconds and 2:04:95.

"I think it will be a really fun experience, and I'm trying not to approach this as a huge ordeal," Kristen said. "I'm just trying to picture this as another swim meet where I can go in and do my best. At nationals last year, it was kind of the same thing, because you were seeing swimmers who were No. 1 in the nation and crazy fast, and you just have to focus on what you're doing and not get star-struck."

Said Dale: "I'm a little nervous, because it's going to be a really big meet with a lot of competition, but I'm also just kind of looking to have fun. My goal is to do a best time and see where I might need to be in four years."

Troy Tillman, a sprint freestyler at Tennessee, is the first swimmer from Notre Dame High School to qualify for the Olympic trials. Tillman grew up practicing with the Baylor Swim Club, which has 10 current or former members qualified for Omaha.

Baylor graduate and Florida sophomore Savannah Napier was the other qualifier Saturday at Auburn, notching a 4:55:59 in the women's 400 individual medley.

An 11th former BSC swimmer, Martin Grodzki, won the NCAA 1,650-yard freestyle for Georgia in March but failed to make the German Olympic team despite winning the 1,500-meter free in his country's trials. Germany has a higher qualifying standard than the international federation.

Ryan and Alabama backstroker Reese Shirey from Baylor have previous trials experience.

"Last time, I was just trying not to get dead last," said Ryan, who finished 20th in the 1,500 free in 2008 while still at McCallie. "This time, I've obviously got a shot of making the team. It's a whole different world and a whole different feeling."

Ryan's 1,500 time is 15:01.43, seeding him behind Chad LaTourette (14:52.36), Peter Vanderkaay (14:54.99) and Andrew Gemmell (15:01.31). McCallie coach Stan Corcoran believes Ryan's endurance from his open-water swims could benefit him in the July 2 finals, should he make the top eight on July 1.

Though it's the longest race at the trials, a scant second could be the difference in Ryan finishing among the top two and making the Olympic team or just missing out.

"It's definitely something that has gone through my mind, and right now I consider myself as an underdog," Ryan said. "I have plans later this summer if I don't make the team, and if I do make the team then those plans are obviously not going to go through. Either way, I'll have to deal with it when it comes."

Ryan could become the first area swimmer to qualify for the Olympics since former Baylor and Florida standout Geoff Gaberino in 1984. Brad Bridgewater, who won the 200-meter backstroke at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, moved to Chattanooga as a toddler and moved away a couple of years later.

The rest of this year's area qualifiers are decided underdogs, as only Ryan and Kristen Vredeveld are seeded among the top 50 in events. Vredeveld, who set a 15-16 national age-group record in the 50 free in March 2011, is seeded 23rd in the 50 free and 30th in the 100 free.

Some of the area swimmers aren't even in the top 100.

"That can put a damper on it for some people, but you've got an opportunity to go fast, and you've got a lot of other things to swim for, too," Roger Vredeveld said. "It's a long shot to make the team for most people. Right now, in the men's 200 IM, there are some great swimmers in college, but it's going to be very tough for any of them to beat Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte.

"Those guys are pros, so I think everybody has to go into the trials with the goal of doing the best they can. It's the biggest venue swimming has except for the Olympics."

Omaha's CenturyLink Center is normally home for Creighton University basketball and will be configured to seat 13,200 for next week's trials, which is a bit more than the typical CASL audience.

"We're all really excited about it, and I know Dad is ready to watch," Kristen said. "The scene will be completely different, but it will be like we're swimming on the same team, just like it was at Baylor or at Stuart Heights."

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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