Early on during the Phillips 66 National Championship Meet, a week-long extravaganza held in Irvine, Cali., Caley Oquist’s coach pulled her aside to remind her why she was there.
“He said, ‘Caley, you’re at this meet. You’re not just a fan anymore,” relayed Oquist, in an interview with the Times on Tuesday afternoon.
One could hardly blame Oquist, a 2013 Monticello High School graduate, for being starstruck. She was sharing a pool with swimmers – including Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, Ryan Lochte, and countless others – that aren’t idols just to her, but to much of the country as well.
But throughout the five-day meet, the former Magic swimmer continually proved her coach right. She belonged at a meet like this.
Oquist, who is currently in the middle of her career as an Louisiana State University Tiger, participated in four races at the meet.
The rising junior was 54th out of 75 finishers during the 200 individual medley preliminary and was 49th out of 73 finishers in the 200-meter backstroke.
But it was in the shorter backstroke events where she really shined.
In the 100 backstroke preliminary round, Oquist took a second off her seed time, winning her heat with a time of 1:01.78.
She missed qualifying for the A-Final by just three one hundredths of a second, finishing tenth overall in the prelims.
Oquist would instead swim in the B-Final, finishing 15th out of 78 competitors with a time of 1:02.41. The A-Final was won by Franklin, one of the country’s brightest Olympic stars, in a time of 59.38.
In her fourth event, the 50-meter backstroke, Oquist turned in another stellar preliminary performance, earning a spot in another B-Final.
In this final, she stayed right at her seed, finishing 11th (out of 64 swimmers) with a time of 29.26. The A-Final in the 50 back was won by Rachel Bootsma, another Olympic star, with a time of 28.35.
Her strong performances on a big stage might have opened up some future doors for Oquist. She said her low time in the 100-meter backstroke makes her a candidate to be selected for the World Championships next year – but she won’t find out about that till October.
And, the meet gave her a glimmer of hope that she still has a chance to get to the level that these big stars are currently at.
“It will be kind of cool to see what can happen in two years,” said Oquist, in reference to the next Olympic trials.
But on Tuesday, she was still bubbling with joy about the meet she had just participated in.
“It just made everything pay off,” said Oquist.
Besides her strong swims, there were several other highlights to the weekend.
Oquist said swimming at UC-Irvine’s gorgeous outdoor pool was a huge plus.
And traveling with 10 of her teammates, with seven of them representing the Tigers at the meet, made the trip even more memorable.
“I had so much fun with my team,” she said.
She also mentioned that the Tigers received recognition at the meet as a program on the rise. Between the positive publicity of being at the best meet in the country, and getting that kind of chatter to go along with it, Oquist is confident this past weekend is going to help LSU immensely.
“People are starting to notice us,” she said. “It does so much for our recruiting purposes.”
The last highlight of the meet, and certainly not the least noteworthy, was Oquist getting a chance to meet some of her idols.
While she didn’t get to meet Phelps (her favorite swimmer), who she said had a (necessary) security detail, she did have brushes with many of the country’s top swimmers.
A couple of the girls she had met before, including gold medal winner Elizabeth Beisel, who she met at the SEC Championships, and reconnected with this weekend.
But there were some first time experiences too, namely, meeting Missy Franklin and Ryan Lochte – and snapping pictures with both.
“Missy Franklin is a saint,” said Oquist, adding that Franklin gave her a hug and wished her luck before one of her races. “She’s the nicest person I’ve ever met.”
Oquist was also impressed with Lochte, something the diehard Phelps fan had trouble with.
“I hate to admit it,” she said with a laugh. “But he was very nice.”
Oquist was, of course, thrilled to meet the stars that she met (“I was smiling ear to ear the whole time,” she said). But she was even more thrilled to find she belonged.
“I never thought, in my wildest dreams, that I’d be competing in a meet that Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, Ryan Lochte, [etc.] were in,” said Oquist. “It was surreal.”
Contact Clay Sawatzke at email@example.com