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For Utah swimmer Rhyan White, the Olympics wasn’t so much a question of if, but when

Former Cottonwood High swimmer took her considerable talents to Alabama, where she was a 10-time All-American and the 2021 SEC Swimmer of the Year. Now she’s taking her show to the Summer Games, like she always knew she would

Former Cottonwood High swimmer Rhyan White shows joy after winning a heat at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in Nebraska.
Rhyan White reacts after winning the women’s 200 backstroke during wave 2 of the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials on Saturday, June 19, 2021, in Omaha, Neb.
Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

Ron Lockwood, a longtime Salt Lake swim club coach, remembers the moment he realized that 12-year-old Rhyan White was a future star. She was competing in a 100-meter backstroke race in Salt Lake City, and as she powered away from the field in a way her coaches had never seen previously, Lockwood exchanged a knowing look with fellow coach Allen Jones, and a realization came over him: She was an extraordinary talent.

It was an epiphany, and suddenly Lockwood felt a burden of responsibility to cultivate that talent. It was analogous to that famous scene in “Jaws” when, after getting his first look at the shark, Sheriff Brody says, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Afterward, he called Todd Schmitz, who coached Olympic champion Missy Franklin at the time. “Todd, help me out,” he said. “I think we have something special here.” It was the first of many such calls.

“We talked dozens of times over the years,” recalls Lockwood. “We talked about how to develop her, how to go about putting her in the best position, not as a 13-year-old, but as an 18-year-old. There was something special about Rhyan early. The challenge with Rhyan was: What do we do so that we can provide every opportunity to achieve the heights of what the sport has to offer?”

Fast forward to 2021. White, now 21, is a 10-time All-American swimmer at the University of Alabama and the 2021 SEC Swimmer of the Year — and now an Olympian. She qualified for the 2021 U.S. Olympic team last month at the Olympic swim trials, winning the 200-meter backstroke and placing second in the 100-meter backstroke. She is believed to be the first native Utahn to qualify for the Olympic swim team.

“The one person who was not surprised by this is Rhyan,” says Lockwood.

He remembers sitting next to her at the 2016 Utah state championships while she did an interview with a magazine reporter. After telling the reporter that she was going to compete in the Olympic trials, the 16-year-old White added, “I’m planning to qualify for Rio (site of that year’s Olympics).’” Says Lockwood, “I looked at her. I wasn’t sure then (about her readiness to qualify for the Olympics). She really believed it. It was just her attitude and confidence. She was certain.”

Sky View High School’s Megan Brimhall, left, and Cottonwood High School’s Rhyan White, right, congratulate each other after the women’s 100-yard backstroke during the 2016 UHSAA Class 5A State Swimming Championships Friday, Feb. 12, 2016, at the Stephen L. Richards building in Provo.
Sky View High School’s Megan Brimhall, left, and Cottonwood High School’s Rhyan White, right, congratulate each other after the women’s 100-yard backstroke during the 2016 UHSAA Class 5A State Swimming Championships Friday, Feb. 12, 2016, at the Stephen L. Richards building in Provo. Even then, as a high school swimmer, White had Olympic aspirations that she felt certain would be fulfilled.
Luke Franke, Deseret News

“I really thought that when I was younger,” White says by phone from Team USA’s training base in Honolulu. She made a habit of telling people that she was going to the Olympics. Her mom, Jenny, says it was always stated in a casual, matter-of-fact way — “It was just like, ‘I want toast for breakfast,’” she says. “She said it and always believed it.” When White was 15, she asked Franklin for an autograph at a sectional swim competition and then informed her, “I’m going to be a swimmer in the Olympics with you.” The Olympic champion, who is now retired, smiled politely.

“I don’t know what age I was when I started telling people that,” White says. “I’d tell friends who wanted to play and hang out, ‘No, I have to swim. I have to go to the Olympics.’ If they got upset when I couldn’t play, I’d say, ‘I have to get ready for the Olympics.’”

If doubt ever did creep into her thoughts, it was following two second-place finishes at the NCAA championships in March. She finished behind two childhood rivals, Katharine Berkoff in the 100 backstroke and Phoebe Bacon in the 200 backstroke, the latter by more than a half-second, a rout in swimming. The Olympic trials, three months later, would include both post-collegiate and collegiate competitors, and only the first two in each event qualify for the Games.

She talked to Lockwood afterward. “I spent the whole season winning events and not racing,” she told him. “I never had someone beside me to push.” She addressed the problem with a handful of races leading up to the trials. She also listened to podcasts and watched what she calls “inspirational” videos to build her confidence.

“Racing the clock is a big part of the sport,” says Lockwood, “but at some point we’re in a competition against other swimmers and your goal is to put your hand on the wall ahead of someone else. There are only two spots, and it doesn’t matter if you’re only one one-hundredth of a second behind. That’s the reality of trials.”

White defeated both of her NCAA conquerors at the trials, beating runner-up Bacon at 200 meters by almost three-quarters of a second.

“What impressed me was that it would have been so easy to be discouraged,” says Lockwood. “She just lost to these girls and now she has to race them again (at the trials). The mental fortitude it took to do that ...”

The early years

White, the fifth of six children, was raised in Herriman in the southwest corner of the Salt Lake Valley. Her father, Jeff, is a contractor. It was left to Jenny to shuttle the kids to their various activities. When the kids were young, she enrolled them in a swim club to teach them to swim. They all swam club competition for a few years but eventually dropped out, except Rhyan and her sister JC. They continued to swim during their high school years, although JC took some time off to pursue tumbling and cheerleading.

“I’m super close with my sister,” says White. “It (swimming) was something we did together.”

She signed up for her first competitive team when she was 8. She joined the Wasatch Front Fish Market Swim Team at 12 and trained under Allen and Lockwood. She competed as a freshman for Herriman High, but transferred to Cottonwood High so she could continue to train with her club coaches (Lockwood also was the Cottonwood coach) and attend class at a charter school — Academy for Math, Engineering and Science.

For a half-dozen years she undertook a demanding training program. Three mornings each week she traveled a half-hour from her home to Cottonwood for team practices, which began at 5:15. She trained in the pool again four times a week after school, swimming repeat sprints that totaled anywhere from 3,500 to 6,500 yards per session (or between 2 and 3.7 miles). On three other days she participated in team dryland training sessions.

And still she took on more.

At some point Lockwood, Jenny and Rhyan discussed how she could get faster, and it was decided that she needed to get stronger and thinner. When Lockwood learned that Rhyan’s parents had bought a rowing machine for their own use, he suggested that Rhyan use it, as well, to augment her training program.

Rhyan White participates in the women’s 200 backstroke during wave 2 of the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials on Saturday, June 19, 2021, in Omaha, Neb.
Jeff Roberson, Associated Press

On the three mornings there were no pool workouts, she climbed out of bed at 5 a.m. to perform rigorous rowing workouts — 6 x 54-second rowing bursts to imitate the approximate time it took to swim a 100 backstroke and 25 x 3-minute bursts to imitate a 500-meter race, trying to increase the meters she covered with each successive rep.

“I picture myself in the pool in a race,” she says. Since then, Lockwood has received calls from college coaches asking him to send his row workout program to them. Meanwhile, White still augments her dryland workouts with rowing sessions a couple of times a week.

From Cottonwood High to Crimson Tide

“There were a lot of changes,” says Lockwood. “She started watching how she ate. Her body composition was one of the biggest changes. She got to Alabama and got with a nutritionist and got in the weight room. She came back for Christmas during her sophomore year and walked onto the pool deck. I had to do a double take. I barely recognized her. Her fitness level was dramatically better. The advantage of college coaches is they can get the kids out of Mom’s kitchen and get them on an eating program, and Rhyan took it seriously … Her college coaches have done a remarkable job.”

Rhyan White, sporting an Alabama Crimson Tide swim cap, reacts after winning the women’s 200 backstroke during wave 2 of the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials on Saturday, June 19, 2021, in Omaha, Neb. An improved diet and nutritional regime at Alabama helped elevate White’s game.
Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

During her formative years, White discovered she was adept at the butterfly and even better at the backstroke. “She was never challenged in the backstroke, ever,” says Lockwood. “At some point, she was just moving faster than everyone else. In the state meet she was winning by five seconds. That was a challenge.”

White had to compete at regional meets out of state to be challenged. At one of the local club meets, when it was announced White was swimming her last club competition before moving to the collegiate level, Jenny overheard a parent in the crowd say, “Good, now someone else can start winning.” She was the Class 5A state Swimmer of the Year four consecutive years. She has been a dominant swimmer during her three seasons at Alabama, as well, and now she’s heading to the Tokyo Olympic Games.

“I always knew that she was going to do this,” says Jenny. “She’s just always said it, and she worked so hard and was so dedicated. She doesn’t go out or hang out. She misses family vacations. … People say it’s unbelievable she’s going to the Olympics, but I believed it. She just works so hard. I know everybody works hard, but man ... .”

It has all come with a price. As Rhyan notes, “I don’t have a lot of time for other things. I don’t have much of a social life. I never really hung out with people (as a teen). I go to bed at 10, 10:30 to work out the next morning. I’ve never been one to worry about missing things. If I’m with friends I just say, ‘Bye, guys, I’m going to bed.’ When I was at home, I’d come home, eat, talk to my family and go to bed.”

All that singlemindedness and work has taken her to the 2021 Summer Games, just as she said it would. Some believe she is a medal contender. “Yes, 100%,” says Lockwood. “I do think we’re going to see Rhyan on the podium.”

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