Projecting the future for standout young athletes is at best an imperfect science.
Coaches caution against anointing someone as the next big thing and for good reasons: There are too many variables to predict a sure thing. Placing the burden of huge expectations on a teenager is unfair to them and can distract athletes from the things they had been doing to achieve success in their sport or event.
So when Carla Gildersleeve’s coach and parents found out she was the top-ranked 14-year-old swimmer nationally for the 200 butterfly, they were glad she took it in stride.
Instead of being distracted, Gildersleeve has continued her hard-driving approach to training as she prepares to compete at this week’s USA Swimming’s junior national championship meet (Wednesday through Sunday) in Seattle.
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She actually qualified for the full national meet in the same event with a blistering time of 2:01.56 at a qualifying event last month in Carmel but decided to skip that event to concentrate on the junior nationals, which is just a week after the full meet.
A versatile swimmer, Gildersleeve also qualified for the junior nationals in the 500 freestyle, the 200 freestyle and the 200 individual medley.
She attributes her success to something simple.
“I like being in the water,” said Gildersleeve, an eighth-grader at Franklin Community Middle School.
Her coach with the Franklin Regional Swim Team (the USA Nationals is a club, not school, event), Zach DeWitt, said Gildersleeve’s success is due to a combination of natural ability and her work ethic.
“She is highly intelligent and the most relentless person I have ever met as far as trying to correct little details in her swimming,” said DeWitt, who is also the varsity boys and girls swim coach at Franklin Community High School. “She is unbelievably focused and always works hard.
“She obviously has a good frame and talent, but at the national level everyone has talent. It’s the way she works on the little details that will make a difference to help her continue to go toward the next level.”
Although the 5-foot-9 Gildersleeve is not yet in high school, she appears on the fast-track to an NCAA Division I swimming opportunity and a chance to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team.
“At this point her trajectory would suggest (the Olympics) is something she is capable of,” DeWitt said. “Obviously, so much happens at this level between now and when she will be in those national events.
“You have to be in the top two in an event nationally to make that team, and I can’t speak to everyone else who would be competing, but yes, she does have that potential.”
Gildersleeve has dominated her age group in Indiana and the Midwest. For three of the past four years, she earned the most individual points at the regional or zone meet and four times has won all six events of her events in the state club finals.
Being that good in so many events puts Gildersleeve in a rare category, DeWitt said.
“She’s extremely strong for her body type, and that’s part of what makes her so versatile,” he said. “That’s what made Michael Phelps so special. I’m not saying she has done anything of that level yet, but it’s still very unusual for someone to excel at so many events the way she has.”
Gildersleeve has enjoyed a fast learning curve. She competed in her first meet at age 8 for a club in Martinsville, where the family used to live. In that meet, she said, she was disqualified from multiple events for not doing some of the strokes correctly.
Jill Gildersleeve recalls that her daughter competed in a pink bikini and without goggles, hardly standard attire for competitive swimmers.
A family affa
But Gildersleeve, who learned to swim at age 3, loved the competition. She developed her competitive streak while trying to keep up in the water with her older brothers, Jake and Chance.
Jill Gildersleeve didn’t know how good her daughter would become, but she did see some early hints.
“She taught herself a crude version of the freestyle when she was 3 or 4,” Jill Gildersleeve said. “She just wanted to keep up with her brothers. Every day she figured a little more out about how to do it.”
Jill Gildersleeve added that her daughter is analytical about her swimming, which helps her both with technique and with race strategy at big meets. When a competitor raced to a big lead early in a 1,500 freestyle race at one meet, her parents thought a win was impossible. They asked her later if she was concerned at how far back she was and were told no, because Carla Gildersleeve had watched the girl in another race and knew she didn’t pace herself correctly, Jill Gildersleeve said.
The youngster pulled ahead late in the race to take the victory.
She spends about 20 hours a week in the pool, training in the mornings and afternoons six days a week. With the junior nationals approaching next month, she will ramp up her routine to seven days a week. She doesn’t miss out on social time because she has made many friends from her swim teams, she said.
Also involved in her routine is weight training with Franklin Community High School strength coach Jeremy Hartman, nightly stretching exercises, sleeping nine hours a night and a strict diet.
That kind of commitment requires a disciplined lifestyle, but Gildersleeve wouldn’t have it any other way.
“My friends will want to get Frosties, and I’ll just get water, but that’s all right,” she said. “I keep thinking about where I want to be, about what times I want to swim.”
Name: Carla Gildersleeve
School: Franklin Community Middle School
Accomplishment: Qualified for USA Swimming Junior Nationals in four events
Family: Parents, Jill and Brett; brothers, Jake and Chase
Favorite athlete: Swimmer Missy Franklin
Favorite singer: Taylor Swift
Favorite TV show: “Grey’s Anatomy”
Favorite school subject: Reading
Favorite food: Chili
“At the national level everyone has talent. It’s the way she works on the little details that will make a difference to help her continue to go toward the next level.”
Swimming coach Zach DeWitt, on Carla Gildersleeve