When Caley Oquist, a 2012 Monticello High School grad, showed up at the U.S. Open Swimming Championships in Irvine, California at the end of July, she was overwhelmed with happiness. It was only partly due to being in a field with some of the best swimmers in the country.
“I hadn’t been to the ocean in so long,” said Oquist, who along with teammates stayed at a house right on the beach. “I was on cloud nine.”
But after a few days of enjoying the beach, it was back to business for the Louisiana State University swimmer. Oquist, who is set to begin her sophomore year, qualified for finals in the 100 backstroke at the meet, eventually walking away with a 12th place finish at the U.S. Open.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Oquist. “There were a lot of fast swimmers.”
She belonged. The Tiger qualified by swimming a U.S. Open cut time (which is identical to the Olympic cut time) at a long course Louisiana State meet on July 11. She needed to get under 1:03.99 in the 100 back, and did so, swimming a 1:03.1 in just her second long course event since eighth grade.
That set her up with the opportunity to perform in Irvine, alongside countless great swimmers, including Olympians, such as Cullen Jones.
Oquist jokingly said she entered the meet with dreams of not getting dead last. But in actuality, she was shooting for the finals, meaning she would need a preliminary time in the top 24 of the 68 collegiate swimmers competing.
“I wanted to do well, because I was representing LSU,” said Oquist.
Oquist wasn’t quite able to match her seed time, as she turned in a 1:03.38 in the Friday morning preliminaries. She was momentarily worried that she might miss the finals, but the worrying proved for naught. Oquist tied for the 19th best time in prelims, sliding into the Class C finals heat.
Squaring off against swimmers from Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin and others, Oquist turned in an outstanding performance. She won the eight swimmer heat, coming in under 63 seconds with a time of 1:02.99.
“That was really exciting,” said Oquist. “I was really happy with it.”
She not only finished first in her heat, but her finals time surpassed a handful of people in the middle heat, and even one person in the top heat, as Oquist ended up with the 12th best final time of the meet.
It was further proof that the swimmer continues to improve and settle in as she finishes making the adjustment to college swimming.
“Practices are insanely hard,” said Oquist, talking about adjusting to the new level. “It took a long time for me to get comfortable.”
But by the end of her college season, there was evidence she was settling in. She was the lone Tiger to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Now, as the summer season wraps up, and she enjoys a two-week break from swimming, she already has her eyes on this postseason. When Oquist heads back to the LSU pool to start the season on Sunday, she’ll be working toward coming home at the end of the season. This coming year’s NCAA meet, scheduled for March 20-22, is being held at the University of Minnesota. Oquist qualified for last year’s meet as part of a relay, but hopes to make it as an individual this year.
“I would absolutely love it,” said Oquist of the chance to swim back home, in front of friends and family. “It would be awesome. Just to be at that pool would be really cool.”
Contact Clay Sawatzke at firstname.lastname@example.org