RIO DE JANEIRO — Two weeks ago, Sun Devil swimmer Katarina Simonovic glided through the water under a warm Tempe sun at the Mona Plummer Aquatic Complex.
She donned a pitchfork swim cap along with her teammates beside her.
Fast-forward to the afternoon of Aug. 8. It’s the second heat of the 200-meter freestyle at the Olympic Aquatics Center in Rio de Janeiro.
The red and white crest of Serbia replaces the pitchfork on her cap. On the blocks to the left and right of her, swimmers are clad in caps with colors of countries from all over the world.
She waits for the referee’s whistle — one long chirp signaling swimmers to step on the block.
The whistle blows. She takes her mark. The buzzer sounds.
In lane four, she dives in.
She hits the wall 2:00.06 later. She’s the first to finish, in front of the Czech Republic’s Barbora Seemanova and Macedonia’s Anastasia Bogdanovski, who placed second and third respectively.
Simonovic was one of four current or former Sun Devil swimmers who swam in the 2016 Olympics. Richard Bohus and Anna Olasz swam for their native Hungary while alumnus Gal Nevo competed for Israel. Also, ASU Swim and Dive coach Bob Bowman coached the U.S. swim team to 16 gold medals in Rio.
“All I ever wanted to do was get out there and race my hardest,” Simonovic said. “I was able to do that.”
By the end of the heats, she finished 30th in the 200 meters. The day before, she placed 23rd in the 400-meter freestyle, posting a time of 4:15.57.
“I thought that once you walked out on the pool deck, with the amount of media there is… that it would be this magical, crazy, huge thing,” she said. “But when you’re here you really realize how it’s just another meet. If you focus, you could do the same things you’ve done at other meets too.”
Aside from glorified details that come with competing at the Olympic level, there’s one thing that remained a constant – her family.
Just like the many meets that took place at the Mona Plummer Aquatic Center in Tempe, Simonovic’s parents and sister Kristina stood in the stands. Even 77-year-old grandmother Mira made the trip to Rio.
“Seeing Kat’s name on the big screen and knowing that her name is mentioned in the world gives me goosebumps and such pride,” said Ivana Simonovic, her mother.
She recalls the day that led her daughter to this moment.
“I remember, it’s like yesterday when Kat was 12 years old, she told us guys, I will go to the Olympic Games,'” she said. “She can do anything when she puts her mind to it. She has incredible drive and determination which is great to watch and cheer on.”
It wasn’t an easy road to Rio. A rough junior collegiate year would shake Simonovic’s confidence. She was able put that aside at the 53rd Settecolli Trophy in Rome, swimming 0.09 seconds under the Olympic qualifying standard 1:58.96 to punch her ticket to Rio.
“I tried to go into the Games with an open mentality,” she said. “I just wanted to have fun and soak in and experience the whole thing.”
Her drive comes from the early morning swim practices at age 8, eating breakfast in the car on the way to school, then finishing homework on the way to evening practice.
It would eventually carry her to the Olympic Village, becoming neighbors with household names.
“I saw Usain Bolt just casually eating dinner in the village,” she said. “That was awesome to see him.”
But she’s not seeking out famous athletes. Simonovic realized, just like soon to be ASU volunteer coach Michael Phelps, each athlete shares the same determination to compete at the Olympic level.
“Everyone here is so special,” she said. “Everyone has put in the work to do what they do, whether they are a household name or they are competing for a smaller sport or smaller country. We all have a lot in common.”
So instead, she sought after fellow Sun Devils.
Hungarian Sun Devils
Richard Bohus, 23, stands outside the Olympic Village welcome center, sporting a mint-green Hungarian uniform and reflective blue Ray-Bans. A couple days before, he swam the 4×100 meter medley relay, helping his Hungarian team finish ninth.Almost a year ago in September, this moment was a far-fetched dream. A bicycle accident left him with a broken right elbow and a broken left wrist. Before that, nearly two years ago, a shoulder problem would result in surgery.
That makes two times under the knife in the last three years for the 6-foot-1 Sun Devil backstroker.
“When I had broken two arms I was really kind of desperate,” he said. “It’s pretty hard, especially mentally. It’s really, really tough to think about if I could make the team or come to Rio. It gave me so much power that I could come back in five, six months.”
He was given the nickname “Comeback Kid,” setting a school record in the 100-yard backstroke in February, clocking in a 46.74 time. At the Rio Games, he set a personal best in the 100-meter freestyle, finishing second in his heat at 48.86.
“Hopefully I won’t break anything when I get back,” he said. “I talked to [Bowman] and he said I could get a better season if I have two arms.”
His fellow Hungarian teammate, Anna Olasz, had even less time to think about the Olympics.
She had two weeks.
It wasn’t until July 25 that the marathon swimmer found out she would be joining Bohus and Simonovic in Rio.
Finishing 11th at the 2015 World Championships, Olasz was left out of the 25-woman field due to a limit on the number of swimmers per country. But a spot opened up after Russian swimmer Anastasia Krapivina was among those banned from Rio for doping violations by international swimming organization FINA.
As it turns out, Krapivina was cleared and reinstated to compete alongside Olasz in the 10k marathon.
“Last week they told me Russians are swimming so I freaked out again, like am I not going then?” she said. “I’m swimming, [Krapivina] was swimming. It was a little bit crazy but I’m here, I’m an Olympian,” she said.
Water quality proved to be a non-issue as Olasz dipped in and out of the Atlantic Ocean waves. She would finish 14th, with a 1:57:45 mark, but she holds no resentment due to lack of preparation.
“I know being 14th isn’t what I imagined myself to be at Olympics or any big international meet,” she said. “But I should be happy with just being here because three weeks ago I thought I wasn’t coming and here we are.”
Sun Devil pride
As the Games come to a close, the three swimmers begin to make their way back to Tempe for the start of their senior seasons. They take back with them their Olympic experiences as well as the most-decorated Olympian of all-time, Michael Phelps.
“Even if he’s just talking to you and knowing he’s there it just gives you extra motivation,” Olasz said. “As a swimmer, even though it’s an individual sport, you aren’t just playing for yourself, you’re swimming for your team, you’re swimming for your coaches. Swimming for the best athlete ever is extra motivation we can have that no one else does.”
From the pool deck, Simonovic observed Phelps and the way the U.S. team turned an otherwise solitary game into a family affair.
“That’s so important for ASU to learn going to next season,” she said. “Just forgetting about the small differences we all have and learning to represent the family of ASU and going forward and achieving big things.”