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Headed for Rio: Caylee Watson

Unlike most college juniors, Caylee Watson is not busy looking for an internship this semester. Instead, she is preparing to compete in the 100-meter backstroke at the Summer Olympics in Brazil. 

Watson will set aside her red, white and blue American University swimsuit to compete in the colors of her home country, the U.S. Virgin Islands. She hopes to bring home her country’s first Olympic medal. 

“In December, when I went to that long course meet at [the United States Naval Academy], I told my representative my time and then she had a meeting with the Virgin Islands Swimming Federation and the Olympic Committee,” Watson said. “And they were comfortable with it being close enough to the standard and they voted on me going.” She clocked a 1:05.2, compared to the 1:03.39 standard.

Unlike larger countries, such as the United States, the Virgin Islands do not have Olympic trials. Instead, athletes can get “universality spots.” If they make the U.S. Olympic trials cut time, they are guaranteed a universality spot. 

Watson always knew it would be easier for her to qualify since she came from a smaller nation, but she did not truly believe she could until last December, at the Short Course Swimming World Championships in Doha, Qatar. 

“I knew I had dropped a lot of time during my 1½ years in college, but when I got to Qatar I had the opportunity to swim meters again and I swam a lot faster and placed a lot better than I ever thought I would,” Watson said. “It wasn’t my first international meet, but it was the first time I was actually proud of my swims for my country. After that, I was about two seconds from the cut—before I was nine seconds—and I knew going was within reach.” 

Despite always dreaming of reaching the Olympics, Watson has often doubted herself. Luckily, people have believed in her all her life. 

“My dad is a big sports guy,” she said. “I think me going to the Olympics has been his dream longer than my own.” 

Mark Davin, her coach at AU, has also been a major supporter, encouraging her to step outside her comfort zone as a freshman and go in an “off event,” or a stroke she doesn’t specialize in, such as the 100-yard freestyle. Even though Watson did not consider herself a freestyle swimmer, Davin pushed her to hit a goal of 52 seconds by the end of the year. She did. 

Watson also credits her friend back in the Virgin Islands as a big supporter. 

“She’s been telling me she was going to watch me swim in Rio ever since they announced it would be there,” Watson said. “All of these people believed in me even during times when I didn’t believe in myself.” 

To prepare for Rio, Watson has been focusing on swimming backstroke this year for AU and training hard with Davin. The Virgin Islands do not have the same equipment or facilities as America, nor the opportunities to race. Back home, she was the only girl on her team when she graduated, and they only had about five meets a year. 

“Here I have a full team of girls and guys, a great facility and a very dedicated coach with an immense knowledge of stroke technique,” Watson said. “My backstroke is a completely different stroke from when I came in my freshman year and it shows–I’ve dropped seven seconds in  100 yards in two years.”

Her teammates have been extremely supportive of her qualifying for Rio. 

“It’s freaking awesome,” said teammate Giorgio Zenere. “I remember how Caylee and I joined the team together and were both used to swimming a longer length pool. She adapted much more quickly than I did and that shows what great skill she has. Also, ever since she came to America she has been a part of every four by 100-meter relay. She is a great leader to our team by the example she sets. The Olympics are going to be an awesome opportunity for her.”

Watson cannot wait to disembark in Rio and participate in the Games. 

“I mean, it’s the Olympics. I am pretty excited about every part of it.” 

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