Gretchen Walsh approached the starting block in Lane 2, swim cap pulled tight over her long blond hair, goggles in hand.
She felt a little lucky.
Two is her favorite number.
She took her mark, set and launched herself into the water.
A mere 25.96 seconds later, she hit the wall, winning the 50-meter freestyle and becoming the nation’s youngest U.S. Olympic Trials swim qualifier.
She started sobbing. So did her sister, Alex.
“It was the greatest experience,” said Gretchen Walsh, a rising eighth-grader at Harpeth Hall in Nashville.
An even greater experience is yet to come. Together, Gretchen and Alex Walsh will head to Omaha, Neb., this weekend for the biggest meet of their lives — the U.S. Olympic Trials.
To have a pair of sisters swim in the Olympic trials is not that unique. Plenty of DNA-dominant swim siblings have gone before. In fact, among the 14 competitors from the Nashville Aquatic Club who qualified for this week’s competition, there are two sets of talented sisters — Gretchen and Alex Walsh and Brentwood’s Allie and Meaghan Raab.
But what stands out about the Walsh sisters is their age. Gretchen is only 13. Alex is just one year older. And both are rising stars. Alex, who last year broke two swim records previously held by four-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin, has qualified for four Trials events, along with her sister’s one.
“There’s obviously a huge genetic component in any athletic endeavor,” Nashville Aquatic Club Coach John Morse said. “To have two of them that young, that’s the unique part.”
The Walsh sisters’ swim genes, it seems, could be attributed to their mom, Glynis, who swam at Boston College.
The girls were in the pool as toddlers, swimming around age 4. As their talent emerged, competitive swimming became the pursuit. Pinned to the bulletin board in the Walsh kitchen hung a poster showing the levels of achievement. Juniors. Nationals. Olympic Trials.
By age 10, Gretchen made up her mind that she would make it to the top of that chart — with her sister by her side.
In the pool, the girls are friendly.
If they hit the wall at the same time while doing laps, they will sometimes turn to face each other, waving during the flip turn. Gretchen is always there with a pat on the back when Alex is having a hard practice or a joke to calm her nerves.
They are also competitive. If Alex takes a breath on a hard set and sees her sister next to her, she tries to take the edge.
“We do push each other, because if she drops time I want to drop time,” Alex said.
Alex was the first of the duo to qualify for the Trials, winning the 200 backstroke at the NAC Nike Summer Sizzler last July. “I swam my heart out and when I hit the wall. I heard everybody behind me scream,” Alex Walsh said.
It was the first of four qualifiers she would claim.
In December, at the Eastern Junior Nationals in Atlanta, Alex broke two records previously held by Franklin. She became the fastest girl ever to swim the 200-meter individual medley and the 100-meter backstroke in the 13-14 age group.
Heading into the Trials, coach Morse said Alex certainly has a shot to make the finals. Once there, anything could happen.
“She’s a really phenomenal racer,” Morse said.
Gretchen’s qualifying race happened at her last possible opportunity — just last week.
Before the race, her teammates promised to post celebratory photos all over Instragram if she made the cut. One friend gave her an epic high five.
As she cut through the water, the chant “Trials. Trials. Trials.” repeated in her head.
She will have to wait another week — until July 2 — to see how it turns out. The 50-meter freestyle is one of the final two preliminary races held at the trials.
But she will have plenty to entertain her. In addition to watching her teammates and sister swim, Gretchen hopes to meet a few stars.
“I am excited to go and see all these people that are famous and get to meet them and get autographs,” she said with a laugh.
Gretchen knows the opportunity to swim at the Trials at such a young age is special. With the peak of her career still likely ahead of her, this could be a trial run for the future. An important learning experience.
On race day, she will step out into an arena filled with more fans than she has ever swum in front of before.
She will see herself on the big screen. She will hear her name echo across the loud speakers.
And she will reach for that wall.
Hoping to again sob in happiness.
Along with her sister.
Reach Jessica Bliss at 615-259-8253 and on Twitter @jlbliss.
Nashville Aquatic Club swimmers at U.S. Olympic Trials
Mary Cayten Brakefield, 17, Nashville, 100 backstroke
Taylor Charles, 20, Mt. Juliet, 400 IM, 200 butterfly
Maclin Davis, 22, Nashville, 100 butterfly
Chatham Dobbs, 20, Nashville, 50 freestyle, 100 backstroke
Dakota Hodgson, 24, Brentwood, 100 butterfly, 200 butterfly
Annie Kyriakidis, 17, Nashville, 200 breaststroke
Curtis Lovelace, 26, Old Hickory, 100 breaststroke
Ella Nelson, 14, Nashville, 100 breaststroke, 200 breaststroke, 200 IM, 400 IM
Allie Raab, 16, Brentwood, 100 breaststroke, 200 breaststroke
Meaghan Raab, 20, Brentwood, 200 freestyle, 200 breaststroke, 200 IM
Elizabeth Stinson, 19, Nashville, 400 freestyle, 800 freestyle
Tatum Wade, 18, Nashville, 100 breaststroke, 200 breaststroke, 200 freestyle, 200 IM, 400 IM
Alex Walsh, 14, Nashville, 100 backstroke, 200 backstroke, 100 breaststroke, 200 IM
Gretchen Walsh, 13, Nashville, 50 freestyle