US butterfly prodigy Claire Curzan: ‘Everyone gawked at this girl who liked to swim fast’

Just what does a three-year-old swimming prodigy look like?

Mark Curzan knows the answer to that now, though he didn’t at the time.

Fourteen years ago, he watched proudly as his daughter, Claire, kept up with – and even beat – the six-year-olds in 15-yard races at their local community pool. At 6am on Saturday, he’ll proudly watch from home as his 17-year-old daughter competes in the 100m butterfly at the Olympics in Tokyo.

Claire is one of four US swimmers under the age of 18 competing for Team USA in Japan. She’s not even the team’s youngest member, heralding in a true changing of the guard for the 53-member team. Claire qualified in June with a time of 56.43 seconds in a three-way sprint for second place across the length of a football pitch.

“You see these parents say that their kids will be in the Olympics someday, and everyone tells you this will come to fruition, but it wasn’t a done deal until I saw the number two behind her name on the biggest stage in the country,” said Mark, who swam for his Santa Barbara high school. “It’s one of those mind-blowing, pinch-yourself moments.”

Of course, a lot of other moments had to happen before this one. Claire’s swimming career began at that outdoor community pool in Cary, North Carolina, where her father and uncle hosted water safety and races for the neighborhood children. On Tuesday nights, the pool lit up with floodlights and filled up for “Summer Swim,” where the kids could win medals or, at the very least, score some pizza and ice cream.

“My favorite part about Summer Swim were the meets,” said Claire, who spoke to the Guardian before she flew out to Tokyo, “because everyone just gawked at this little blonde girl who liked to swim fast. I would probably get ice cream afterward because I have a big sweet-tooth. You never have fast food and swimming at the same place.”

Early on, Claire raced alongside her older brother, Sean, also a competitive swimmer. When Claire was old enough, she taught her sister how to swim. “She wouldn’t put her ears under, she never liked that feeling,” said Claire. “I never had that. I loved water and being in it. So, I guess that drew me to it.”

Ballet had the best shot at beating out swimming for Claire’s attentions. She was coordinated and adept, but over time, she found the discipline constricting. “I didn’t like tight things on my legs,” she said of the uniform. Nutcracker recitals slowly gave way to swim meets and at age 11, five years into her training, Claire put her ballet slippers away for good.

On the day Claire’s overstuffed trophy shelf came crashing down in her bedroom, Mark and his wife, Tracy, decided to look for year-round swimming instruction. The Triangle Aquatic Center in Raleigh, which had opened two years before Claire was born, was a 20-minute ride from the Curzan house. It had a 50m, Olympic-size pool – a resource not every youth swimmer gets.

At age 12, Claire had her breakthrough, literally, when she captured her first national age group (NAG) record at a meet at Ohio State University.

“She was 12 years old competing against 18-year-olds,” said Mark, who accompanied his daughter on the trip. “To watch the [on-screen] announcer describe her race – he got really excited to announce her finish. She was in the C Final – that’s the third tier – and she set her first national record in the 100 yard butterfly.”

That night, as snow gently drifted down around them, father and daughter posed for a photo, the famous Horseshoe Stadium behind them.

“It was one of those bonding moments that couldn’t have been better even if Hallmark had written it,” said Mark. It was also the start of a dizzying schedule of qualifying meets around the country – the path nearly every swimmer takes to make it to the Olympics. Mark and his wife, both physicians, took turns accompanying their daughter to competitions.

Over the next four years there were early mornings, breakfasts in the car, long drives and longer flights. Friends’ birthdays and sleepovers were traded for chlorine-singed hair, peeling skin and vats of Vaseline to combat it. Vacations had to be approved by coaches – activities like swimming with sting rays or skiing were deemed too hazardous.

The sacrifice paid off, as Claire’s career has been a straight ascension. Swimming in the age 13-14 bracket in 2018, Claire broke the NAG record three more times, shaving seconds off the clock. Swimming with the TAC Titans, she broke four more NAG records. In fact, as Claire moved up the ladder from sectionals to states to nationals, she toppled at least seven more records, including one held by five-time Olympic champion Missy Franklin. At the World Championships in Budapest, Claire won four medals. It seemed the only way to slow her down would be to slow Earth itself.

When the Covid pandemic hit in March 2020, there was concern that swimmers – who rarely take more than a day at a time away from the pool – would suffer. While TAC remained closed for six weeks, Claire swam at a neighbor’s pool in a wetsuit, her coach tethered behind her for resistance.

“Six weeks off is like heresy when it comes to swimming,” said Mark, “but the break mentally and physically actually gave her energy. She had her best times weeks after, which went against the [traditional] mindset and mantra that you have to be in the pool every single day.”

The 2020 Olympics were eventually postponed, yet Claire’s schedule over the past year has remained rigorous. She swam two hours each morning before school and on Saturdays with additional pool sessions three days a week. On dry land, Claire strengthened and conditioned with weights and bands and joined her mother three days a week for cardio.

Claire returned to competition in July 2020 and broke four more NAG records over the next year. Last April, she became the second-fastest American woman ever in the 100m butterfly.

Claire was the No 1 seed heading into the US Olympic trials in June. Mark worried this would effect her negatively, as she’s excelled as the pursuer, able to push past the leader in a final burst. Now, Claire’s competitors would be chasing her. Mark explained as much to his driver as he headed over to the arena to watch his daughter. Mark’s enthusiasm was so infectious that the driver asked to join him. As Claire teed up for the finals, Mark recapped his daughter’s trajectory from the local community pool to the Horseshoe to the lights, cameras and pageantry now before them.

Claire was quietly optimistic, riding on the momentum she’d gained in the last two years. She finished second and booked her seat to Tokyo.

“I am one to set really big goals and I still wanted to make the Olympics in 2020,” she said. “I had the same mindset going into 2021. I was confident in my training and up what I was doing up until that point, so a little part of me knew that I could do it. It was just getting over the nerves and stuff and doing that I’ve always done.”

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