On a Sunday afternoon in Rome near the end of June, Arizona State senior Katarina Simonovic stood behind the block at the 53rd Settecolli Trophy International swim meet and pictured the perfect race, a race that could punch her ticket to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero.
“After warm-ups, I got my suit on and grabbed my cap and goggles and went to the ready room,” Simonovic said. “The weirdest thing happened. I don’t know where the surge of confidence came from, but I knew exactly how the race was going to go and I knew I would swim the time.”
In the 200-meter freestyle, Simonovic, who swims internationally for Serbia, swam 0.09 seconds under the Olympic qualifying standard of 1:58.96, just enough to swim that event in Rio.
“When I finished, I was super happy,” Simonovic said. “But more so than anything, I felt whole and complete again, and that feeling of confidence returned.”
When she hit the wall, Simonovic turned to the stands, unsure of her result.
“From my point of view, I couldn’t see the scoreboard,” said Simonivic, who spotted ASU assistant coach Dan Kesler bursting with excitement. “After I hit the wall, I looked over at Dan, and I saw him jumping up and down in the stands and I knew that we did it.”
Not an easy road to Rio
However, qualification didn’t come easy for Simonovic. She was coming off a tough collegiate season during which she failed to qualify for the NCAA Championships. It damaged her self-confidence.
“I didn’t swim how I was expected,” Simonovic said. “I went into long-course season training hard and going through the routine, but not really too sure how I would do. But on race day everything turned around. I woke up that morning and knew something good was going to happen.”
Although she was born in the United States, both of her parents migrated from Serbia, which gives Simonovic eligibility to compete for her family’s home nation. In order for European swimmers to qualify for the Olympics, they must swim under a certain time standard.
“It is a dream in a way,” Simonovic said. “But also when you’re working towards something every single day, and the closer and closer you get and train, the dream becomes more of a reality. When I was behind the blocks and I got that surge of energy, that goal became a reality.”
Hard work pays off
When Simonovic was going through her final preparations, she still wondered if she had a chance to make the Olympics. Kesler knew her hard work would pay off.
“She asked me two weeks before the meet if she was going to be able to do this,” Kesler said. “I said, ‘Kat yes, without a doubt you’re going to be able to do this,’ but I knew it was going to be close.”
After the meet in Rome, Kesler and Simonovic returned to the Mona Plummer Aquatic Center in Tempe to continue training for the Olympic Games.
“It hasn’t really hit me yet,” Simonovic said before leaving for Rio. “I think the process of competing, making it and then hopping back into the pool, I haven’t really had the time to sit down and realize that wow, I made it. I think once I start packing my bags, it will really kick in and hit me.”