By Andrew Tomsky, NAU Media Relations
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – After competing for a conference title and representing Northern Arizona University with a second place finish at the WAC Championship in late February, a pair of NAU athletes continued their training and got the great honor of representing their home countries in Olympic trials last week. Senior Chalene Dirks-Ryan and sophomore Emma Lowther both competed in Olympic qualifying meets for their home countries of Canada and New Zealand, respectively, swimming with some of the best athletes in the world.
"I'm so happy I went," said Dirks-Ryan, who will graduate with a degree in marketing next month. "It was one of the greatest experiences of my life and I feel so lucky to be able to experience something like that. I feel like it's an accumulation of the last four years of being in college and being a Lumberjack, and all of that has helped me get to where I am now."
Dirks-Ryan competed in the 50, 100, and 200 freestyle as well as the 100 backstroke, while Lowther swam the 100, 200, 400, and 800 free, the 100 butterfly, and the 800 free relay. After struggling at the beginning of the meet, Lowther closed strong with a fifth place individual finish in the 800 free and narrowly missed a qualifying mark with a second place finish in the 800 free relay, competing with others from her home club Howick Pakuranga.
"It was probably the first meet where I've turned it around," Lowther said. "Usually when I start off one way that's how my whole meet goes, and that was probably the first time I've started off not as I was expecting to and finished as I was expecting to. I fell like that was a great growing experience and something that I can bring back to the team."
The swimmers were able to compete in the trials based on qualifying times achieved this year. While meets in Wall Aquatic Center are swam short-course meters and most other collegiate pools utilize short-course yards, the Olympic trials were competed on long-course meters, providing an extra challenge for the NAU Olympic hopefuls. One of the many benefits of training in Flagstaff, however, is that international teams train on long-course meters in the Wall pool, and Dirks-Ryan and Lowther were able to train with them for the month following the WAC Championships.
Both Dirks-Ryan and Lowther had also competed in Olympic trials prior to the 2008 Beijing games before coming to NAU, but said the training and experiences they have had as Lumberjacks made this meet a completely different experience.
"I remember after the '08 trials I thought about four more years of hard training and I'll come back and give it a good shot, and I'm so proud that I actually did that," said Lowther, a native of Cockle Bay, Manukau, New Zealand. "Out of the people that were there with me not a whole lot came back this year. I'm also glad I got to share it with this team, as even though they weren't there I felt their support."
"For me it was a lot different because it was pretty much my last competitive meet ever and it was just a totally different atmosphere," said Dirks-Ryan, who hails from Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. "It was a lot more serious and I had more of a purpose. It's way different than anything we ever experience here when you are competing for your country."
Lowther has two more years of collegiate swimming to look forward to and the prospect of competing again for the 2016 games, although she would prefer to compete again in that environment much sooner.
"Even though it didn't go to plan this year, if anything it made me more passionate about swimming and I love it even more," she said. "I want to get back in and train and I want trials to be held again in another month. Seeing the reactions of the people that made it, I want that. I'm so ready to go again."
For Dirks-Ryan, the meet was likely her last competitive racing before she completes her degree and moves back to Canada, though her passion for the sport was elevated to a whole new level following the excitement of the trials.
"At this point I'm going to take a bit of a break from swimming so it was kind of hard and really emotional," she said. "Trials for a lot of people are an emotional roller coaster and it kind of was for me. I had to take everything in stride and I'm just proud of everything I've done.
Though they were thousands of miles away from Flagstaff, with the Canadian trials taking place in Montreal and the New Zealand trials taking place on the other side of the world, both Lumberjack swimmers said they could feel the support of the teammates and coaches.
"It's nice to have not only teammates but real true friends supporting you," Dirks-Ryan said. "There were only four people from my club team that went, so you bond over that but there's only so much support four people can give you compared to a whole team. At conference everyone is on deck and everyone is cheering and that type of energy is just not the same when the team isn't there."
The excitement and energy is of a different sort when competing for one's country rather than competing as a team.
"Nothing will ever top the whole team being around at the WAC Championships," said Lowther, who earned one gold, three silvers, and two bronze medals in a superb performance at the 2012 conference meet. "When you are halfway through a race and all you can hear is screaming, nothing will ever top that feeling. At times I missed having our team at the trials, because the club atmosphere is not the same. Here you want your best friend to swim well, whereas there you are competing against your best friend. It's just a different kind of competition."
While the team camaraderie may have been absent, witnessing the joy and elation that comes from qualifying for the Olympics was a great site to see for both NAU swimmers.
"Even if you aren't in the final and don't know all the people swimming, you still are just so excited," said Dirks-Ryan. "It's such an amazing atmosphere and I wouldn't trade it for anything. I got goose bumps after every single race."
"My friends started qualifying for the Olympics," Lowther added. "I had chills and we were all crying at the end. We're all behind the team and I know more than half of them personally now so it's going to be really exciting to watch the Olympics."
New Zealand and Canada are not traditional powerhouses in international swimming, but both Lowther and Dirks-Ryan have seen the progression of their country's swimming programs over the last four years and are excited to see them compete in London this summer. Dirks-Ryan will take the great experiences she had over the past week into a future likely outside of competitive swimming, while Lowther hopes to maintain and spread the positive energy she obtained as she looks to lead her team to new heights next season.
"I feel like I can appreciate what we've got more and hopefully share that appreciation with everybody else," she said. "We can't take the team for granted because it helps so much, and I really think we can win the WAC next year. Everyone is so positive already and I want to keep that energy going. Being back home and seeing what hard training can do, I hope I can hold on to that positivity."