Eyes on Rio: UA Athletes Hope to Make a Splash
Swimmers Bonnie Brandon and Emma Schoettmer know the competition will be fierce — and that's just to win a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

By Doug Carroll, University Relations – Communications
Jan. 22, 2016

Brandon, Bonnie 110615_0097.jpg

The UA's Bonnie Brandon has qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials for a third time. She placed in the top five in two events at the 2012 Trials.
The UA's Bonnie Brandon has qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials for a third time. She placed in the top five in two events at the 2012 Trials. (Photo: Arizona Athletics)


When are the 2016 Olympic Games?

The Games will be held Aug. 5-21 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Paralympic Games also will be held in Rio (Sept. 7-18). The Olympic Trials for the U.S. swimming and diving team are June 26 through July 3 in Omaha, Nebraska.

Who were the UA’s medalists in the 2012 Olympic Games?

There were five with UA affiliation: Alyssa Anderson (gold), Matt Grevers (two golds, one silver) and Nick Thoman (gold, silver) in swimming; Andre Iguodala (gold) in men’s basketball; and Brigetta Barrett (silver) in women’s track and field.

Will the UA have athletes in the Paralympics?

Jennifer Poist, who competed in 2012 in London, already has made the U.S. women’s basketball team. Bryan Barten and Dana Mathewson are likely to compete in tennis and Shirley Reilly in track and field.

The UA's Emma Schoettmer will try to make the U.S. Olympic team in the 200-meter breaststroke. (Photo: Arizona Athletics)
Bonnie Brandon
Emma Schoettmer

The huge panels along the north wall of the Hillenbrand Aquatic Center tell the distinguished history — in names, events, times and years — of the University of Arizona swimming and diving program.

One of the eight panels is devoted to Olympians of all nations that the UA men’s and women’s teams have produced. Among the 50-plus names are those of Amy Van Dyken (1996, 2000) and Amanda Beard (1996, 2000, 2004, 2008), former gold medalists for the U.S. In the 2012 London Games, 22 athletes claimed UA affiliation, including 13 swimmers.

Many schools would be over the moon to have just one swimmer qualify for the U.S. Trials, the hypercompetitive meet in late June at which the American Olympic team is selected by performance. But not the UA, where only a few members of the women’s team haven't already secured a spot in the Trials.

"Most swimmers just want to go to the Trials, to have a chance (to make the team)," says UA backstroke star Bonnie Brandon.

That happy-to-be-there mindset may have described Brandon and UA breaststroke ace Emma Schoettmer four years ago, but no longer. Both are focused on making the team that will compete in Rio de Janeiro in August. The quadrennial quest of current and former UA athletes to become Olympians and Paralympians will be one of the biggest stories of 2016.

If Brandon and Schoettmer make the American team, it won’t be a fluke. As usual, Team USA will be loaded with world-class competitors.

"The U.S. Trials is the fastest meet in the world, faster even than the Olympics," says Brandon, 22, a senior from Denver. The U.S. has "so many good swimmers, it’s incredible," she says.

Brandon and Schoettmer, 22, a senior from Indianapolis, mark their own interest in the Olympics by who was swimming in the Games.

The 2004 Games featured Ian Crocker of the U.S. and Ian Thorpe of Australia. Michael Phelps’ breakout year came in 2008, and 2012 is remembered for Phelps, Missy Franklin (a high school rival of Brandon’s) and the UA’s Matt Grevers, one of three Wildcat swimmers to win a gold medal in London (he won two).

An Olympic year, Schoettmer says, "is the only year people really notice our sport. They keep track of it. They know who I am and who the other swimmers are."

Brandy Collins, a former UA swimmer who is now an assistant coach for the Wildcats, says the vibe is unmistakable, in and out of the pool. 

"Olympic years are unbelievable for swimmers," she says. "Everyone gets on their game and becomes more professional to try to make the team."

Brandon and Schoettmer have in mind what it will take. Brandon, a veteran of two previous Trials, says 2 minutes, 7 seconds should be good enough in the women's 200-meter backstroke. Schoettmer says 2:23 should get it done in the 200-meter breaststroke. Only two swimmers will make the team in each event.

For now, they are focused on their UA season and the NCAA meet that will follow, in Atlanta at the end of March. Afterward, training for the Trials, which are held in Omaha, Nebraska, will begin in earnest.

The electric atmosphere at the Trials, both say, is incomparable — "like having a pool in the McKale Center," Brandon says. UA swimmers, who compete as the club team Ford Aquatics in the offseason, brought a huge contingent of fans to the meet in 2012, when the Wildcat baseball team won the College World Series, also in Omaha, at the same time.

That all-for-one feeling is something swimmers take away from their time at the UA.

"I loved it here," Brandon says, recalling her first visit to campus. "It was relaxed and comfortable and everyone wasn’t freaking out about swimming. It was normal.

"The Arizona team at meets was so unique. They were relaxed, not nervous. They were cool and confident. They were a unit and they sat together. They were very much a team."

Says Schoettmer: "Team USA is so dominant because we all learn in college how to be a team."

Games on.

UANews is exploring six stories to watch as 2016 begins. Previously in this series:

Health & Medicine: The asthma research of Dr. Fernando Martinez 

Big Data: The UA's expanded role in turning data into discovery

Humanities: In February, a visit from Shakespeare's touring First Folio

Environment: UA at the forefront on climate change