Grace Cooper’s wait is over.
Cooper, who won five individual state championships and one relay championship in high school at Oswego East, on Thursday takes the pool for the meet she’s always dreamed of.
The 18-year-old who just completed her freshman year at the University of Texas is set to compete in the 2021 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha, Neb.
Cooper, one of seven current members of the Texas women’s swimming team at the week-long event that will determine spots on the official Team USA roster for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, is entered in the 50 and 100-meter freestyle.
Preliminaries for the 100 are set for Thursday morning, with the semifinals Thursday night and finals Friday night. Preliminaries for the 50 freestyle are Saturday morning, with the finals Sunday night.
“I’m pretty much feeling just excitement right now,” said Cooper, who arrived in Omaha Monday evening. “This meet is a very emotional meet for everyone. No matter where you are placing, there are just so many emotions. Making the team, not making the team, I’m just trying to keep my composure.”
The meet is a long time coming for Cooper and so many Olympic hopefuls like her.
Cooper qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 50 and 100 freestyle at the USA Swimming Winter National Championships in 2018. But her goal of competing in the Olympic Trials was put on hold for a year when the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was postponed to this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Olympics are now set for July 23-August 8.
Cooper’s parents will be making the six-hour drive to Omaha Thursday morning to see their daughter compete live.
“I feel like [the wait] almost makes it more exciting,” Cooper said. “There were all of the what ifs. Will the Olympics happen, will it not? There were so many rumors. Now that it is happening, I’m just grateful to be here. I think it makes it that much more important and special.”
It’s a special moment for Cooper, her family and her hometown swim program.
When Cooper reached high school at Oswego East, she wrote the goal of competing in the Olympic Trials down on a piece of paper. She planned to be her coach Deryl Leubner’s first pupil to make it.
Now she’s the first Oswego native to compete at the meet since Leubner himself did so in 1992.
“First and foremost, it’s great for her,” Leubner said. “This is something she has been working for. It’s obviously been a hard year for everybody training. For her to get this chance, to step up and get that experience and she’s only 18. The sport of swimming, people are swimming well into their 20s. She may have two more legit shots at this. To get this experience now and put herself on this grand stage is great to prepare her for the next time around.”
It’s been an unusual competitive year for Cooper, but a productive one.
Cooper said that Texas only had a couple of dual meets in the season running from August through March, with a scaled-down Big 12 championships. But the Longhorns won the Big 12 team title, and Cooper won the 50 freestyle conference title. She then competed in relay events for Texas at the NCAA Championships in Greensboro, N.C. where the Longhorns finished third – the program’s first top-three finish since 2001.
“I definitely feel like I have more experience than I did last year, with the higher competition, going to NC’s and experiencing that. It was a huge experience.”
So will this week.
Cooper in Omaha is part of a 50 and 100 freestyle field headlined by Simone Manuel, the defending Olympic gold medalist and record holder in the 100. Manuel won five gold medals at the 2017 World Championships and holds the top three American times in the 100 and top two in the 50.
Cooper has yet to swim in the competition pool, but watching it she knows it’s quite the event. The pool is completely lit up with lights with the rest of the stadium darkened so the audience can only see the pool. Before every final session there is a light show with beams shooting everywhere.
The first round of preliminaries can be seen on NBCOlympics.com with the semifinals on NBC Sports Network and finals in primetime on NBC.
“I’m excited to get the opportunity,” said Cooper, who turns 19 in July. “Honestly this week is going to be a big experience for me to be here for the first time. I want to have fun with it with my teammates, race my best and have fun.”